Reading the unreadable with metamaterials

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Optoelectronics Research Centre


The aim of the proposal is the development of a high throughput, broadband method to access real-time information about the fine details of physical and biological objects. This will be achieved by transforming evanescent electromagnetic waves, the information carriers for small scale features, to free-space propagating waves that can be collected easily by standard optical techniques. The suggested metamaterial platform will impact most fields where fine-scale diagnostics are important (materials science, condensed matter physics, biology) and will also allow the recording and retrieval of encrypted information for which specially designed metamaterials will act as a unique decryption key.

Planned Impact

Impact Summary
The project, "Reading the unreadable with metamaterials" directly addresses core themes of the EPSRC strategy. With the aim of substantially enhancing and possibly transforming current information processing and imaging technologies, it is aimed at achieving long term societal impact by:

- improving the quality of life: information technologies permeate modern societies and underpin almost all communication networks, whereas imaging occupies an increasingly important position in the healthcare sector.

- contributing to the UK scientific and technological research base: evanescent waves contain information about the structure, topology and light-matter interactions of nanoscale objects; access to this information will have substantial impact on physics, materials science and the biosciences.

- contributing to the UK economy: successful demonstration of the suggested concept can lead to the generation of intellectual property and the development of commercial applications impacting thus on the economic well being of the UK.

Short-term impact is expected to include:

- generation of additional research income: it is expected that the First grant scheme will act as a basis for the development of innovative research and will facilitate the attraction of further research income both from the UK and the EU.

- training of highly skilled people: pursuing innovative and potentially transforming research directions will contribute to the advanced training of students through the applicant's involvement in PhD supervision and postgraduate teaching activities .


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Description The research undertaken within the remit of this grant lead to the development of a novel method for spatiotemporal control of electromagnetic waves for wavefront shaping, pulse shaping and imaging. Here strong interactions between the metamaterial constituents and gradient spatial and frequency electromagnetic properties allow to encode information about the fine details of the electromagnetic environment of the metamaterial in the far-field response (transmission, reflection). Such metamaterials also provide the opportunity to manipulate simultaneously the spatial and frequency structure of electromagnetic waveforms with potential applications in the generation and transformation of complex, exotic electromagnetic pulses. A typical example involves the so-called "Flying Doughnuts", single-cycle pulses of toroidal topology with coupled spatial and temporal structure, which have never been observed to date. A recipe has been developed for the generation of such pulses, based on appropriately designing the spatial and frequency metamaterial response (doi:10.1038/nmat4563). In parallel, the polarization properties of strongly interacting systems were considered in collaboration with Dr F. Pinheiro from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro resulting in a comprehensive study of chirality and optical activity in disordered media (Phys. Rev. B 95, 220201(R) (2017)). Finally, in collaboration with Dr Pin Chieh Wu from the National Taiwan University, the concept of metamaterials with gradient spatially and frequency properties lead to a new ultra-broaband absorbing metamaterial based on space-filling curves (doi:10.1103/PhysRevApplied.6.044019).

Overall, to date research undertaken within this grant has contributed to the award of a Advanced Newton Fellowship, 10 published papers, 5 invited talks, and 6 conference contributions.
Exploitation Route The findings of the research program can be taken forward mainly by academic and industrial researchers working in the broad fields of photonics and applied optics, and in particular imaging, sensing, and energy harvesting. To this end, the results have been presented not only in specialized metamaterials meetings, but also international conferences spanning diverse areas of optical science (SPIE), conferences focusing on materials science (CIMTEC), as well as workshops on quantum optics (FNM 2016). The imaging method developed in this research program can be tested by researchers in the materials diagnostics and devices against known methods in order to assess its potential usefulness. Industrial researchers can employ the concept of broadband absorbing metamaterials in order to develop prototype devices for applications in sensing (aerospace, defence, environment) and energy harvesting. The studies in the polarization sensitive properties of disorder will impact research on colloidal systems, a topic central to many areas of manufacturing, chemicals and healthcare. The next step here could involve employing the optical activity of such systems in order to obtain information about their composition and concentration, and hence facilitate monitoring of manufacturing processes and quality control.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Chemicals,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Other

Description The findings of the project involve basic research and very low technology readiness levels (TRL=1). Hence, at this stage the economic and societal impact is taking place through educational routes. The outcomes of the project were included into a graduate module (MSc in Photonic Technologies) offered at the University of Southampton aiming at training telecommunications and photonics engineers and researchers for both academic and industrial roles. Additionally, findings of the project have attracted the attention of industry publications ("A recipe for electromagnetic doughnuts", S. Willis, Optics & Photonics News, 29 May 2018) and the popular science press ("Researchers crack the code of Flying Douhnuts", R. Letzter,, May 31 2018).
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description Collaboration with Dr Felipe Pinheiro 
Organisation Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We hosted Dr Felipe Pinheiro as a visitor during 5/1/2015-31/12/2015. During his visit we established a joint research program on the topic of multiple scattering and symmetry breaking in metamaterials. Our contribution to the partnership involves experimental and computational research efforts, as well as expertise in metamaterials, plasmonics, and chirality. I visited Dr Felipe Pinheiro in Rio de Janeiro during 19/6/2016-28/6/2016. The visit resulted in numerous fruitful discussions with Dr Pinheiro and other members of staff, as well as students and post-doctoral fellows at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro with the aim of strengthening the existing research links. During the visit, toroidal electrodynamics was identified as an additional topic of interest and is currently being introduced in a joint research program.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Felipe Pinheiro provided expertise in multiple scattering phenomena in ensembles of electromagnetic scatterers. As a theorist, he leads and contributes to the analytical and computational research aspects of our joint project.
Impact This collaboration has already provided research results on the chiral properties of disordered systems and on multiple scattering effects with Huygens sources. These results form the basis for two journal publications, one under consideration at Physical Review Letters (arXiv:1610.08432 [physics.optics]) and one under preparation. Moreover, the research findings were presented at an invited talk at the international workshop on Functional and Nanostructured Materials (5-10/9/2016, Tbilisi, Georgia). The results were also presented at the Theo Murphy Scientific Meeting: New horizons for nanophotonics (23-24/5/2016, Chicheley, UK), the Metamaterials'2016 conference (17-22/9/2016, Crete, Greece), the "Strongly disordered optical systems" workshop (26-30/9/2016, Cargese, France) and the NANOMETA 2017 conference (4-7/1/2017). The collaboration has also led to the award of a Newton Advanced Fellowship (NA150208) by the Royal Society.
Start Year 2015
Description Collaboration with Dr Pin Chieh Wu 
Organisation National Taiwan University
Department Department of Physics
Country Taiwan, Province of China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Within the context of the collaboration with Dr Pin Chieh Wu, I introduced the concept of a novel broadband absorbing metamaterial based on a self-similar, space-filling pattern. I also provided guidance and contributed to the computational study of the metamaterial.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Pin Chieh Wu performed the computational studies of self-similar, space-filling metamaterials.
Impact The collaboration resulted in a joint publication in Physical Review Applied (doi:10.1103/PhysRevApplied.6.044019) and will be presented at the 8th International Conference on Surface Plasmon Photonics (22-26/5/2017, Taipei, Taiwan).
Start Year 2015
Description Tutorial lecture to sixth form students at Harris Academy St. John's Wood 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Presentation to ~15 6th form students, which resulted to increased awareness of the metamaterials research area and lead to an intense discussion on its short- and long-term technological implications.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019