Researchers Discover New Flexible Material with Numerous Applications

A researcher experimenting on a substance in a lab.

Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory at Flickr Creative Commons.

The phrase “near-perfect broadband absorption from hyperbolic metamaterial nanoparticles” sounds like some Star Trek “technobabble.” But believe it or not, it’s actually the title of a real paper. In the paper, researchers from UC San Diego’s Jacob’s School of Engineering describe a new material that is thin, flexible, and transparent, with some pretty cool capabilities.

The material absorbs light and, more than that, can essentially be “programmed” when made to absorb different wavelengths of light. This could allow for “transparent window coatings that keep buildings and cars cool on sunny days,” or “devices that could more than triple solar cell efficiencies.”

Imagine a window that keeps a building cool, cutting down on AC costs, while still allowing through the kinds of radio waves that we use for TV, radio, and broadband. Alternatively, the window could be used to block these radio waves, or to prevent heat generated inside the building from escaping. There are a lot of potential uses for the material, which is still early in the development phase. But for now it’s only being made in very small quantities to test out the various capabilities of the material.

Researchers are still figuring out how to scale up production. Because they’re using complex nanotubes and silicon substrates and other advanced technologies, scaling up will take some effort. While these kinds of techniques are becoming increasingly common, they’ve been limited to nanomaterials, which are called that for a reason.

So far we haven’t used these technologies on anything near so big as a plate glass window, but there’s no reason to think that they wouldn’t work. Most likely, as the researchers figure out how to scale up and make things like windows and such, they’ll run into some production issues, but that’s what research and experimentation is for, to figure out how to make something like this work.

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