Living in a (meta)material world

Invisibility cloaks, punch-proof suits and clothing that gives you superhuman powers of observation – Kirsten Edgar gives an insight into the world of Dr Ruopeng Liu, sometimes dubbed China’s answer to Elon Musk.

Last week Callaghan Innovation was fortunate enough to host Dr Ruopeng Liu, an expert in metamaterials and disruptive technologies, on his way to the MORGO conference.

Dr Liu gave a public talk entitled “The Future is Now” at our Balfour Road premises which was attended by clients, academics from the University of Auckland and AUT University, and Callaghan Innovation staff.


So, what are metamaterials, and why should you care?  In science, an ingenious new tool often triggers a cascade of new insights.  Metamaterials were listed by Science Magazine in 2010 as providing one of the top 10 insights of the decade.

They are rationally designed solids whose properties are determined by their internal structure more than by their chemistry, and therefore those properties can be tailored by designing appropriate internal structures or mechanisms, achieving performance that exceeds that of any conventional material.

Metamaterials’ fame comes from their ability to control the flow of electromagnetic energy, including light, which has resulted in ground breaking demonstrations of so-called invisibility cloaks. But metamaterials can interact with any type of wave and have much wider applications than optical or radar cloaking.  Some of the many that are receiving attention at this stage include:

  • energy channelling (e.g. improving the effectiveness of solar cells and the performance of antennas)
  • mechanical cloaking (e.g. isolation from sound & vibration, protecting marine structures from waves and buildings from earthquakes)
  • energy reflectors and diodes (e.g. providing acoustic or thermal insulation for walls and impact protection for athletes)

Callaghan Innovation Research and Technical Services has an active research programme on mechanical and thermal metamaterials.  It is primarily aimed at the growing needs of the NZ (and global) construction industry for new approaches to sound and thermal insulation, and has already produced prototypes of mechanical metamaterials for sound shielding in buildings at frequencies below 1 kHz, which is where conventional approaches perform poorly.


Dr Liu’s talk focussed in the main on potential disruptions that metamaterials might offer in the future.  One example that he discussed was a wearable bodysuit constructed from multiple layers of metamaterials, where each layer offers a different advantage to the wearer – impact resistance, thermal sensing, electromagnetic sensing etc.  As Dr Liu put it, imagine having a punch-proof suit which gave you superhuman powers of observation.

Dr Liu in the lab. Possibly.

Dr Liu in the lab. Possibly.

On a more practical-right-now note Dr Liu’s company, Kuang-Chi Science, has been working hard to take metamaterials from the prototype stage to large-scale industrial applications, which is really the next frontier of metamaterials R&D.  They have developed a completely automated production plant that has enabled them pursue commercially viable applications.

Wireless technology has been a big focus.  For example, Dr Liu reported that the approximately 1000 wifi antennas at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing have been fitted with metamaterial waveguides to eliminate overlap and interference between access points, removing pesky deadspots in coverage.

This appears to be a promising first step in applying metamaterials more widely in a world where the future is now!


About Callaghan Innovation

Business. Technology. Success.
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