The second material is made up of silver nanowires embedded in aluminum. “The nanowire medium works like optical-fiber bundles, so in principle, it’s quite different,” says Nicholas Fang, mechanical-science and -engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, who was not involved in the research. The layered grid structure not only bends light in the negative direction; it also causes it to travel backward. Light transmitted through the nanowire structure also bends in the negative direction, but without traveling backward. Because the work is still in the early stages, it’s unclear which optical metamaterial will work best, and for what applications. “Maybe future solutions will blend these two approaches,” says Fang.
Making an invisibility cloak will pose great engineering challenges. For one thing, the researchers will need to scale up the material even to cloak a small object: existing microwave cloaking devices, and theoretical designs for optical cloaks, must be many layers thick in order to guide light around objects without distortion. Making materials for microwave cloaking was easier because these wavelengths can be controlled by relatively large structural features. To guide visible light around an object will require a material whose structure is controlled at the nanoscale, like the ones made at Berkeley.
Developing cloaking devices may take some time. In the short term, the Berkeley materials are likely to be useful in telecommunications and microscopy. Nanoscale waveguides and other devices made from the materials might overcome one of the major challenges of scaling down optical communications to chip level: allowing fine control of parallel streams of information-rich light on the same chip so that they do not interfere with one another. And the new materials could also eventually be developed into lenses for light microscopes. So-called superlenses for getting around fundamental resolution limitations on light microscopes have been developed by Fang and others, revealing the workings of biological molecules with nanoscale resolution using ultraviolet light, which is damaging to living cells in large doses. But it hasn’t been possible to make superlenses that work in the information-rich and cell-friendly visible and near-infrared parts of the spectrum.