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A new method may make man-made materials transparent or even eliminate them

By: April Carson

In the future, the Enterprise is launched into space in order to find a new home and new life for humanity. The vessel continues its expedition through space when all communication lines are suddenly cut off by an impenetrable Nebula. In numerous episodes of the legendary TV series, the courageous crew must "tech the tech" and "science the science" in order to escape from or avert a similar situation before the end credits roll.

But what if there was a way to make materials that are not naturally transparent, like metal, just as easily see-through? This would allow for all sorts of new technologies and devices, from better solar panels to iPhones that can be made completely invisible.

A team of researchers from the University of Rostock, after spending an extra year in their labs, managed to create a brand-new technique for the design of artificial materials that can send light signals without any distortion via precisely controlled energy flows. Their findings have been published in Science Advances.

The team's new artificial material is made up of a network of nanoscale metal wires that are just a few hundred nanometers in diameter. When light hits the surface of the material, it becomes scattered in different directions. But because the metal wires are so closely spaced together, they act like a mirror that reflects the light back in the same direction it came from.

Alexander Szameit of the Institute for Physics at Rostock's University of describes the genesis of his team's thinking as follows: "When light travels through an inhomogeneous medium, it is scattered. This influence rapidly transforms a tiny, directed beam into a diffuse glow and is familiar to us all from summer clouds and autumn fog." It's the microscopic density distribution of a substance that determines the characteristics of scattering. "The fundamental concept of induced transparency is to take advantage of a less-known optical property to clear a path for the beam, so to speak," says Szameit.

This less-known optical property is the nonlinearity of light propagation. It occurs when light waves interact with each other in a medium and can be used to tailor the properties of the medium. "If we subject a material to an intense laser pulse, the electrons in its atoms are excited," explains Szameit.

The second property of light, known in the field of photonics as non-Hermiticity, concerns energy flow or more accurately the amplification and attenuation of light. The effects associated intuitively may seem undesirable—particularly the fading of a light beam due to absorption would appear to be very counter-productive to the goal of increasing signal transmission. Nonetheless, non-Hermitian effects have advanced optics, and a whole community of study is devoted to utilizing the sophisticated interaction of losses and amplification for more useful features.

Szameit and his team realized that these two properties of light could be combined in a way that would enable transparency on demand. The idea is to engineer a material with very specific photonic properties so that when it is placed in an optical system, the material can be made transparent or even eliminated entirely without affecting the overall functionality of the system.

This is achieved by judiciously designing the photonic structure of the material such that the transmission of light through the material can be controlled by simply turning on or off an external light source. The method could be used to create reconfigurable optical devices or even invisible objects.

"This technique opens up whole new possibilities," according to Andrea Steinfurth, the paper's primary author. It is now feasible to selectively amplify or dampen particular portions of a beam at the nanoscale level in order to combat any signs of deterioration.

The light-scattering properties of the nebula could be totally eliminated in order to stay on track with it. "We are working on a material to adjust it for the greatest possible transmission of a specific light signal," Steinfurth adds. "To accomplish this, the energy flow must be precisely regulated, allowing it to connect with the material and signal like pieces of a puzzle. "The researchers in Rostock successfully addressed this problem in collaboration with MIT Technology partners."

In their research, they were able to re-create and study the minute interactions of light signals with their newly developed active materials in kilometer-long optical fibers.

Induced transparency may be the most intriguing result of these findings. If an item is to truly be made to vanish, scattering must not be stopped. Light waves must instead emerge entirely undisturbed from behind it. Even in space's vacuum, however, diffraction alone ensures that any message will alter its form regardless of whether anything obstructs it. "Our study gives the recipe for creating a material such that light beams appear to pass through it as if it were not there. The Romulans' fictitious cloaking devices can't accomplish anything like that, either," Dr. Matthias Heinrich adds, returning to Star Trek's final frontier.

The conclusions presented in this study represent a watershed in basic photonics research and open up new strategies for fine-tuning sensitive optical systems, such as those used in medical applications. Optical encryption and secure data transmission are among the other potential applications, as well as the synthesis of adaptable artificial materials with varied properties.

"This work is a really beautiful example of how we can use light to do things that were once thought impossible," says Heinrich. "It opens up a whole new area of research with many potential applications."

This blog was originally published in

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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