In the beginning of September, a press release came to my e-mail inbox that really caught my attention. Considering the facts that (1) I get hundreds of e-mails every day, (2) most are about a “new product that is the [first, smallest, fastest, least expensive, most powerful] of its kind”, and (3) I’ve been in the tech journalism business since Ben Franklin started flying kites, it takes something pretty unusual to stop me in my tracks.
The release was from a company called Vector Fields, a part of Cobham plc based in Aurora, IL, and it was announcing the release of design tools to help RF designers exploit the properties of metamaterials. The tools are part of its work for the Advanced Materials for Ubiquitous
Leading-edge Electromagnetic Technologies (AMULET) research project, which is a three-year £3.4m collaborative R&D project funded in part by the UK’s Technology Strategy Board. The project is led by a consortium consisting of Vector Fields, Cobham’s ERA Technology, the National Physical Laboratory, and Queen Mary University of London.
Metamaterials are a fairly recent class of engineered materials that were first conceived at the end of the last millennium by Rodger M. Walser of the University of Texas at Austin. He defined metamaterials as: “Macroscopic composites having a manmade, three-dimensional, periodic cellular architecture designed to produce an optimized combination, not available in nature, of two or more responses to specific excitation.” Recently, there has been theoretical discussions about developing cloaking materials that can bend light around objects to make them invisible.
Obviously, such materials could have a significant impact on warfare and armaments, and so the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been funding development since 2001. DARPA says it has completed this project, but given the nature of the agency’s activities, details are hard to come by.
Getting back to AMULET, Vector Fields’ role in program is to provide antenna developers with enhanced design tools to simulate metamaterial structures. The first phase of this support is currently being released to the market in the new version of the high-frequency electromagnetic design tool, Concerto. One of the key problems addressed by this software, according to it’s developers, is the need for efficient and fast simulation. Concerto handles this by exploiting the periodic nature of passive metamaterial structures to minimize the computations required. The AMULET project will also be exploring the use of active metamaterials, and Vector Fields intends to add modeling support for these in future developments.
There were several things about the announcement that made me take note. First of all, this was about the practical application of metamaterial to engineering problems not of a military nature, but of key commercial importance to everyone involved with wireless technology. Further, the tools are not just for a few researchers working on stealth projects, but for anyone who would like to get involved with this game-changing technology.
And there is no doubt that metamaterials are game changing. The properties of metamaterials are directly dependent on both their physical parameters and their electrical characteristics, and designs based on such materials must take both physical and electrical properties into account simultaneously if it is to be done at a practical pace. The fact that tools are being developed as part of the AMULET project is a clear indication that traditional approaches will not succeed with this
If these new materials and tools create the revolution in design that I believe they will, it will certainly mean that we cannot go forward without mechatronics. It will become impossible to create a competitive product without simultaneously engineering its mechanical, physical, and electrical attributes. What’s particularly encouraging is the fact that those working in the field seem to realize that tools must come first, so as to allow designers to completely explore possibilities quickly and thoroughly, and thereby avoid most of the trial and error approach which has hampered development in the past.