Tech Translated: Metamaterials

  • June 04, 2024

What are metamaterials? Metamaterials are synthetic substances with properties not usually found in naturally occurring matter. They’re made from everyday compounds—metals, plastics, or organic matter, solid or liquid—that are combined to build new, nano-scale 3D structures that react to, and manipulate, electromagnetic sound and other waves.

The versatility and responsiveness of metamaterials opens up a vast array of potential applications, and makes them particularly useful (but not essential) in 4D printing.

What business problems can they address?

“Metamaterials allow us to break through some of the fundamental limits that physics and chemistry put on us, and could open up possibilities for disruptive innovation across a broad range of sectors,” says Scott Likens, Global AI and Innovation Technology Leader, PwC United States. They offer radical improvements in areas including sensors, optical computing, lithography, wireless charging, acoustic and heat insulation, camouflage, defense and aerospace design, and telecommunications. Theoretical examples include “super lenses” that would put the power of the Hubble Space Telescope in a smartphone-sized camera; ultrasound scanners that can destroy tumors without the side effects of a Gamma Knife; or antennae sensitive enough to pick up unique broadcast frequencies.

How do they create value?

“Metamaterials can either replicate the properties of existing materials in new forms—such as at significantly smaller scales, or with better energy efficiency—or they can surpass them with entirely new functionality,” Likens says. “And since they’re fundamentally just responding to different kinds of waves, they have many potential use cases.”

The stimuli for metamaterial changes can include seismic waves, for example, with metamaterials that coat a building and flex to protect it during earthquakes. Other applications being developed include satellite uplink communications without the need for a static satellite dish; radar systems small enough for humans to carry; paper-thin acoustic dampening panels; seamless augmented reality (AR) headset lenses; and lighter-than-air compounds that can bear more than 100,000 times their own weight.

Some experts have predicted that metamaterials could grow to a multibillion-dollar industry by 2030. Currently, however, the most significant investment has come from the defense sectors in the United States and China regarding the development of hypersonic missiles, “invisibility cloaks” for tanks and planes, and new kinds of secure communications.

“The sector badly needs investment that can break it out of the R&D labs,” Likens says. “The potential is there for those willing to invest in transforming these experimental proofs-of-concept into viable products.”

Who should be paying attention?

The potential for innovation promised by metamaterials means that leaders such as CTOs, CSOs, CIOs, CROs, and chief engineers/research and development leads in industries such as aerospace and defense, engineering and construction, industrial manufacturing, healthcare, telecommunications, and consumer markets should all be keeping an eye out for new developments, and consider testing more proven metamaterials as they emerge.

How can businesses prepare?

“Spending time identifying opportunities and risks is usually time well spent, both to identify where metamaterials may impact on current products and supply chains, and for development where these emerging substances seem more viable,” Likens says. With the high concentration of investment from the defense sector, there is potential to both secure grants to fund those initiatives and to break out into underexplored areas that could have broader commercial application. “Even if your business doesn’t see value in developing metamaterials directly, seek out partners—existing or new—who may be,” Likens advises. “This will mean you’re well-placed to take advantage as these technologies mature.”

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Last updated on 4 June 2024

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Tom Archer

Tom Archer

Global Technology Consulting & Alliances Leader, Transformation Platform Co-Leader, PwC United States