An ultra-thin, electrically adjustable metallen concept rendering developed by Cornell and Samsung engineers. Image: Daniel Shilkin

This New ‘Metamaterial’ Lens Technology Will Change Aerospace

The first-ever metamaterial lens has been created. Researchers at Cornell University’s Department of Applied Engineering Physics and Samsung’s Advanced Institute of Technology recently proved that the metamaterials lens concept is feasible. The new metamaterials lens is significant because it can be “focused using voltage instead of mechanically moving the component,” Jules Menten writes in the California News-Times, which “opens the door to a range of compact varifocal lenses that can be used in many imaging applications such as satellites, telescopes, and microscopes.” 

Undoubtedly, the emergence of metamaterial lenses will affect future warfighting capabilities. 

Background: What is a ‘metamaterial?’

A metamaterial is defined as an “artificial medium whose properties (mechanical, optical, magnetic, or other) cannot be found in naturally occurring materials.” 

Typically, metamaterials are designed by combining many identical elements that were fashioned from conventional materials. “Think of a Rubik’s cube made of millions of units smaller than the thickness of a human hair,” Science Daily describes.

Metamaterials, which are “engineered with features smaller than the wavelength of light, are an attempt to achieve elusive subwavelength optical technology with unnatural optical properties,” Valerie C. Coffey writes for Photonics Media.

Perhaps, metamaterials will provide an elusive answer to a nagging technological problem. 

“Science has long sought novel or modified materials that could reach beyond the conventional laws of optics to replace bulky glass and polymer optical components with flatter, more robust, lower-cost, stackable ones,” Coffey writes, “to this end, the field of emerging photonics material has grown into a vast, scattered array of promising technologies.” 

Defense-related industries are on notice.


Harvard developed a ‘metalens’ in 2018 that could focus on all colors. After that breakthrough, research into these types of lens became a ‘focus.’ (Image: Jared Sisler/Harvard SEAS)

Analysis: How will metamaterials alter the battlefield?

Metamaterials, specifically their capacity to be miniaturized, are sure to attract intense attention from the aerospace community. Indeed, in 2009, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a report titled Metamaterials for Aerospace Applications. 

“In many instances, metamaterials enable us to considerably minimize sizes of resonators, transmission lines, and so forth,” the DIA report states, “that enables arrangement within sub-wavelength units that can be densely packed and result in strongly miniaturized components.” 

Such miniaturization is what entices aerospace developers. Researchers want to develop metamaterials technology for use in satellites, spacecraft, and drones–anywhere “where space and weight savings are a priority,” Coffey writes.

The DIA report belies a sense of excitement (explicitly) for metamaterial applications. “In our opinion, the most exciting applications that are relevant for aerospace applications include energy harvesting, developing novel optical devices with unusual yet practically important capabilities (for example, non-reciprocal devices, enhancing the efficiency of nonlinear optical devices, developing novel imaging modalities capable of breaking the diffraction limit (for example, super-lenses, hyper-lenses, far-field super-lenses), and developing novel lithographic techniques.”

For millennia, gathering intelligence has been a primary concern of all warfighters. So without question, defense developers are eagerly awaiting any metamaterial lens breakthroughs that can help lift “the fog of war.” More powerful lenses–placed in satellites or spy planes, or drones–would mean better imaging and increased situational awareness. Metamaterial lenses could help the military know more about perceived enemies.      

Outlook: Welcome to the future?

“Optical metamaterials are still a very new area,” the DIA report states. But, the recent Cornell breakthrough is promising. Mark Brongersma, a materials science professor at Stanford University, believes “numerous industries are ripe for disruption.” In the shorter term, expect the development of metamaterial technology to yield more powerful lenses (which would be incorporated into military technology). In the longer term, metamaterial development could deliver more “far-fetched” technology, like invisibility cloaks or stealth aircraft that are invisible to radar.

Follow and connect with author Harrison Kass on Twitter: @harrison_kass

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