In an important step toward the development of practical invisibility cloaks, researchers have engineered two new materials that bend light in entirely new ways. These materials are the first that work in the optical band of the spectrum, which encompasses visible and infrared light; existing cloaking materials only work with microwaves. Such cloaks, long depicted in science fiction, would allow objects, from warplanes to people, to hide in plain sight.
Both materials, described separately in the journals Science and Nature this week, exhibit a property called negative refraction that no natural material possesses. As light passes through the materials, it bends backward. One material works with visible light; the other has been demonstrated with near-infrared light.
The materials, created in the lab of University of California, Berkeley, engineer Xiang Zhang, could show the way toward invisibility cloaks that shield objects from visible light. But Steven Cummer, a Duke University engineer involved in the development of the microwave cloak, cautions that there is a long way to go before the new materials can be used for cloaking. Cloaking materials must guide light in a very precisely controlled way so that it flows around an object, re-forming on the other side with no distortion. The Berkeley materials can bend light in the fundamental way necessary for cloaking, but they will require further engineering to manipulate light so that it is carefully directed.
One of the new Berkeley materials is made up of alternating layers of metal and an insulating material, both of which are punched with a grid of square holes. The total thickness of the device is about 800 nanometers; the holes are even smaller. “These stacked layers form electrical-current loops that respond to the magnetic field of light,” enabling its unique bending properties, says Jason Valentine, a graduate student in Zhang’s lab. Naturally occurring materials, by contrast, don’t interact with the magnetic component of electromagnetic waves. By changing the size of the holes, the researchers can tune the material to different frequencies of light. So far, they’ve demonstrated negative refraction of near-infrared light using a prism made from the material.
Researchers have been trying to create such materials for nearly 10 years, ever since it occurred to them that negative refraction might actually be possible. Other researchers have only been able to make single layers that are too thin–and much too inefficient–for device applications. The Berkeley material is about 10 times thicker than previous designs, which helps increase how much light it transmits while also making it robust enough to be the basis for real devices. “This is getting close to actual nanoscale devices,” Cummer says of the Berkeley prism.
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.