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Metamaterials to Bend Definition of Possible
Posted In: Technology Articles  6/2/12
By: Chris Capps

When we think about meta-materials and what they may be able to do, it's difficult to imagine them in practice.  It's only when scientists actually develop the material that these possibilities suddenly become more concrete and eerie.  What if there was a material that expanded when it was supposed to compress - or a piece of paper that folded itself long after you were done applying pressure to it?  What might the world's top engineers and inventors be able to do with something that could appear to defy the laws of physics?  One day soon we may hold in our hands raw materials that seem to have a life of their own thanks to recent breakthroughs.

One of the things we've all gotten used to dealing with is that most things exhibit the same sorts of behaviors no matter what they are.  If something is crushed it either compresses and becomes more dense or breaks into smaller pieces.  If a liquid gets cold enough it usually freezes, and must be warmed up again in order to return to a liquid state.  If something is moved, it moves right then - and not later.

But what if scientists developed something that would expand as it was crushed, or move against the force applied to it rather than twisting into shape?  What if engineers could work with materials that counteracted everything we understood as possible?  Zachary Nicolaou and Adilson Motter at Northwestern University took this question and ran several theoretical simulations on it.  What they found was incredible.  Metamaterials can be designed to have what is known as a "negative equilibrium."  Previously it was considered impossible, because such materials would have to explode or shatter with even the smallest amount of force being applied to them.  But it appears there are some exceptions to the rule - and there is more than a little bit that can be done to allow these materials.

What could they do?  If the materials contracted upon being stretched, they could be used as components in any number of machines - particularly those used in construction work, the medical industry, and transportation.  Just as the spring eventually became entwined with millions of uses in our day-to-day, its antithesis could eventually find its way into any number of households and industrial machines.

And that's not the only thing available for metamaterials in the future.  There are other materials being designed to serve big surprises from science and technology in the future.  In this month's issue of the "Journal of Physics," scientists were able to bend light through a specially designed fabric, causing it to slow and in effect provide an early form of what may one day soon become invisibility technology.  Of course invisibility technology, much like other metamaterials is something a few will have to see to believe.


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