Scientists have used an electric current to not just heat a hybrid metamaterial, but also trigger it to change state and fade into the background like a chameleon.

The research may be the proof-of-concept of the first controllable metamaterial device, or metadevice, according to the team of engineers.

“Previous metamaterials work focused mainly on cloaking objects so they were invisible in the radio frequency or other specific frequencies,” says Douglas H. Werner, a professor of electrical engineering at Penn State. “Here we are not trying to make something disappear, but to make it blend in with the background like a chameleon, and we are working in optical wavelengths, specifically in the infrared.”

Metamaterial Chameleon
This scanning electron microscope image shows the gold patterned mesh used in metadevice. A: the top portion of the “U” cutout. B: a magnified look at the mesh from the same area. (Credit: Douglas Werner/Penn State)
Metamaterial
Metamaterial Chameleon
This infrared image shows the metadevice composed of vanadium dioxide with gold patterned mesh. Left: Device without any electric current showing “PSU” cut from the pattern and reflective. Center: Device with 2.03 amps of current. “PSU” and background now appear the same, “PSU” has faded into the background. Right: Device with 2.20 amps of current. The background is now reflective while “PSU” is not. (Credit: Douglas Werner/Penn State)

Metamaterials are synthetic, composite materials that possess qualities not seen in natural materials. These composites derive their functionality by their internal structure rather than by their chemical composition. Existing metamaterials have unusual electromagnetic or acoustic properties. Metadevices take metamaterials and do something of interest or value as any device does.

“The key to this metamaterial and metadevice is vanadium dioxide, a phase change crystal with a phase transition that is triggered by temperatures created by an electric current,” says Lei Kang, a research associate in electrical engineering at Penn State.

For better antennas, add vanadium dioxide

The metamaterial is composed of a base layer of gold thick enough that light cannot pass through it. A thin layer of aluminum dioxide separates the gold from the active vanadium dioxide layer. Another layer of aluminum dioxide separates the vanadium from a gold-patterned layer that is attached to an external electric source. The geometry of the patterned mesh screen controls the functional wavelength range. The amount of current flowing through the device controls the Joule heating effect, the heating due to resistance.

“The proposed metadevice integrated with novel transition materials represents a major step forward by providing a universal approach to creating self-sufficient and highly versatile nanophotonic systems,” the researchers report in Nature Communications.

Metamaterial could lead to ‘perfect lens’

As a proof of concept, the researchers created a .035-inch-by-.02-inch device and cut “PSU” into the gold mesh layer so the vanadium dioxide showed through. The researchers photographed the device using an infrared camera at 2.67 microns. Without any current flowing through the device, the “PSU” stands out as highly reflective.

With a current of 2.03 amps, the “PSU” fades into the background and becomes invisible, while at 2.20 amps, the “PSU” is clearly visible but the background has become highly reflective.

The response of the vanadium dioxide is tunable by altering the current flowing through the device. According to the researchers, vanadium dioxide can change state very rapidly and it is the device configuration that limits the tuning.

Additonal coauthors are from Intel and Virginia Tech. The National Science Foundation partially funded this work.

Source: Penn State

Original Study DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13236

Article by by A’ndrea Elyse Messer-Penn State