Metamaterials are defined as materials engineered to have properties that have not yet been found in nature. They are made from complex assemblies of multiple elements fashioned from conventional materials and derive their properties from their designed structure — such as shape, geometry, size, orientation and arrangement — as opposed to the properties of the base materials.
Appropriately designed metamaterials are capable of affecting light, radar, electromagnetic waves, sound waves and seismic waves. The diverse range of areas where metamaterial has potential applications include military, aerospace, ultrasonic sensors, infrastructure monitoring, public safety, telecommunications, high-gain antennas and minimizing earthquake damage.
Metamaterials rose to prominence in 2000, when a group of physicists led by David Smith from the University of California, San Diego used the technology to create an imperfect "invisibility cloak." However, explorations of artificial materials for manipulating electromagnetic waves actually began as early as the end of the 19th century, with Soviet physicist Victor Veselago achieving a breakthrough in 1968 for being being the first to theoretically describe negative index materials.
With the traditional reliance on high-performing materials becoming increasingly strained due to scarce resources, governments, scientific communities and industrial sectors of developed countries around the world have begun to attach great importance on the development of metamaterial technology.
The United States Department of Defense, for instance, has activated a metamaterial research project, while the country's six largest semiconductor companies including Intel, AMD and IBM, have also set up a joint fund to sponsor related research. The European Union has also assembled a team of more than 50 specialists in the field to conduct research and to provide funding support. Even Japan, despite its struggling economy, has launched at least two research projects related to metamaterial technology, with each pproject costing 3 billion yen (US$25 million).
Breakthroughs in the field have come from all across the globe. In the US, scientists have developed an elastic ceramic tube that can spring back after being squashed by up to 50%, which may prove useful in spacecraft or jet engines to replace metal shells. In Germany, scientists recently managed to make homogenous cylindrical objects completely invisible in the microwave range using metamaterials, which could go towards helping one day make stealth aircraft completely undetectable to military radars. French scientists have also used metamaterial technology to create earthquake "shields" that can deflect acoustic waves like those generated in an earthquake.
China's development in the metamaterials field has been more scattered, with the 863 Program (State High-Tech Development Plan), the 973 Program (National Basic Research Program) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China all receiving government funding to explore the technology.
There have been several Chinese metamaterial innovations hailed as breakthroughs. In 2009, physicists in China used metamaterials to create the first artificial electromagnetic black hole. Other achievements include advancements in stealth technology and creating the ability to observe negative refraction with sound waves.
Last month, the Terminology of Electromagnetic Metamaterials was submitted to the Standardization Administration of China (SAC) for approval, which would provide national standards for the application of metamaterials in the country for the very first time.
A prominent player in the market is Chinese prodigy Liu Ruopeng, who has a doctorate in electronic engineering from Duke University and was selected as a top-level 863 Program specialist in metamaterials at the age of 29. He currently serves as the president of the Shenzhen-based Kuang-Chi Institute of Advanced Technology and the chairman of KuangChi Science. Founded in 2010, Kuang-Chi has applied for more than 2,800 patents, 86% of which are linked to the metamaterials materials industry.
Kuang-Chi is responsible for the development of electromagnetic metamaterial antennas, which can launch energy into free space and has applications in wireless communication, space communications, GPS, satellites, space vehicle navigation and airplanes. Similar technology is only starting to be commercialized in the US this year, though Kuang-Chi already tested the technology in 22 Chinese provinces as early as three years ago.
China's advancements in the microstructure processing of metamaterials is also leading the field. Last year, a group led by professor Huang Xiaozhong from Huan province's Central South University used 3D printers to create a 18-millimeter piece of metamaterial with 100,000 physical units, which could represent a huge step forward in the fast-printing of stealth space aircraft and its replacement parts in the future.
The online database RnR Market Research estimates that the global market for metamaterials will grow at a healthy compund annual growth rate of over 41% over the next 10 years, reaching US$643 million by 2025. Applications in telecommunications are expected to dominate during this period, with sensing and optics tipped to emerge as the next big markets. Super lens, cloaking devices and absorbers are expected to be commercially available by 2019, 2022, and 2018 respectively, while emergence in the aerospace and defense sectors is expected by 2017.
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