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How to Make a Better Invisibility Cloak—With Lasers

Direct laser writing creates metamaterial structures small enough to manipulate visible light

For a century or more, nearly all technological advances have depended on our ability to produce and manipulate the vast variety of materials that nature has given us. Nowhere is that dependence more evident than in the field of electronics. From a smorgasbord of semiconductors, polymers, and metals, we’ve been able to create a dazzling array of circuitry that now underpins pretty much every aspect of modern life.

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So now imagine what we could do if we weren’t limited to the materials found in nature. Researchers have long believed that it would someday be possible to produce artificial materials, or “metamaterials,” and that they would bring about some stunning, otherworldly technologies—the sort that have figured in science fiction tales for years. These innovations include invisibility cloaks that could mask the presence of objects or their electromagnetic signatures, “unfeelability cloaks” that could mechanically mask the tactile feel of an object, superlenses that could resolve features too small to be seen with ordinary microscope lenses, and power absorbers that could capture essentially all of the sunlight hitting a solar cell.

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To achieve these advances we’ll need better metamaterials, and those are on the way. Metamaterials are made up of “meta-atoms”—small two- or three-dimensional structures made of polymer, dielectric material, or metal. When these structures are arranged in regular, repeating crystals, they can be used to manipulate electromagnetic radiation in new ways. Ultimately, the capabilities of a metamaterial are determined by the size, shape, and quality of these structures. And the technology to fabricate meta-atoms has recently turned a corner.

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Over the past few years, research groups around the world have succeeded in developing a way to draw meta-atoms using lasers. The resulting structures can now take on nearly any shape and be stacked in three dimensions in dense, crystal-like arrangements. What’s more, they can be made small enough to exhibit unique mechanical and thermal properties and to alter the flow of light in a range of wavelengths—including the long-inaccessible visible chunk of the spectrum. Thanks to this microscopic fabrication technology, we can finally see a path beyond the materials nature has provided us into entirely new realms that are limited only by our imaginations.

Article: IEEEE Spectrum

Lasers were used to draw the micrometer-scale structures in these metamaterials. Pictured clockwise from top are a bichiral photonic crystal [top view], a photonic quasicrystal, a bichiral photonic crystal [oblique view], and a pentamode metamaterial. Images: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; Karlsruhe Institute of Technology/ Nature Materials; Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; Karlsruhe Institute of Technology/Applied Physics Letters