Monday, December 6News That Matters

These Materials Could Make Science Fiction a Reality

“One of the major problems has been bulk and weight,” said Gary Bradski, chief technologist at, a developer of freely available machine vision software. “I mean how much weight can your nose hold?”

Lightness is an advantage offered by Metalenz, which has demonstrated ultrathin lenses of two-dimensional silicon patterned with ultratiny transparent structures, each smaller than the wavelength of light. However, making the lens like integrated circuits offers other important advantages.

“One of the most powerful things that you get from metamaterials or metasurfaces is the ability to really reduce the complexity of a system while improving the overall performance,” Mr. Devlin said. “So medical or scientific applications that have been locked away in labs because they’re really big, bulky and expensive will now be offered at a price point in a form factor that you can put it in every single person’s phone.”

One early capability will be to make it feasible to place sensors directly behind smartphone displays, making it possible to use the entire surface area of a phone. It will also simplify the “structured light” sensors that project patterns of dots used to perform face recognition.

The most powerful attribute of microelectronics was the ability to scale down circuits, making them faster, more powerful and less expensive, over many decades. In a similar fashion, metamaterials will transform the way designers harness beams of light.

For example, scientists who are completing an advanced millimeter telescope scheduled to be installed at the Simons Observatory in Chile next year turned to metamaterials for the tiles that will coat the interior of the telescope to capture virtually all stray light. Photons that land on the surface of the tiles are trapped by a surface of ultrasmall conelike structures, said Mark Devlin (no relation to the Metalenz founder), a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, who is leading the design of the telescope.

“The tiles are light, cheap, they are easy to install,” he said, “and they won’t fall off.”