Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Invisibility and the power of metamaterials

Although the past century has pretty much been an American one as far as technological innovation goes - remember: the U.S. spends more than half of all the world's R&D dollars - we can't forget that the rest of the world does its fair share too. Scientists, companies and government in the UK have contributed their fair share and continue to do so - UK companies are currently fifth in the world in terms of total R&D spending, following the U.S., Japan, Germany and France (Canada's standing is pathetic, ranking near the bottom, below Denmark).

Some UK contributions are detailed in Sex, Bombs and Burgers. One of its most important inventions, the magnetron - which became radar and ultimately the microwave oven - is detailed at length in the book. You can actually get that chapter here for free.

One other current area where British scientists have made significant contributions is in the research of invisibility. Sir John Pendry, a theoretical physicist at Imperial College in London, blazed some trails in this field earlier this decade with some funding help from DARPA, the Pentagon's advanced science department. I spoke with Pendry in London about how invisibility works while I was working on the book. Here's the video of his explanation:

A number of American researchers have taken Pendry's theories and put them into practice, building experimental invisibility cloaks a few years ago. Given that working models were successful two years ago, we're probably very close to some sort of major announcement regarding the technology.

What's even more fascinating than invisibility, however, is the actual technology behind it. At the root are something called metamaterials, which are artificially created materials that can have somewhat unnatural properties. Bending light is just one of their seemingly super-powered uses. DARPA is naturally very interested in metamaterials and has at least one program under way that is looking to essentially create force fields.


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