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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials May 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Cassandra Harris

Kagome Metals for Efficient Power Distribution

Why is this topic significant?

The development of materials with room-temperature superconductivity could be a game changer for society by making power usage and distribution much more efficient than it is today. Researchers have developed a metallic material that conducts electricity at room temperature in a novel way without losing energy, potentially paving the way for the development of room-temperature superconductors.

Description

In March 2018, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published research describing the development of a metallic crystal with unusual electronic properties. The crystal adopted a kagome crystal structure in which iron and tin atoms form a network of corner-sharing triangles akin to the pattern of Japanese kagome weaved baskets. The researchers claim that the metallic kagome crystal conducts electricity with zero energy loss at room temperature and that current flows in a circular path at the edges of the crystal. They fabricated the kagome crystal, measuring about 1 millimeter in length, by annealing iron and tin powders with a shape-forming additive at 750 degrees Celsius (°C), followed by quenching. The researchers, whose work appeared in the scientific journal Nature, ascribed the kagome crystal's unusual electronic properties to quantum effects and magnetic effects arising from the material's crystal structure and its iron constituent.

Implications

The development of high-temperature superconductors—materials that conduct electricity without resistance and, therefore, loss of power—is a holy grail for scientists and technology developers spanning many application fields. A handful of metallic materials are superconductive at ambient pressure when cooled to ultralow temperatures below approximately –135°C. However, cooling materials to such low temperatures is expensive and challenging to perform at large scales, and the commercial use of superconductive materials is limited to a few specialist applications. Therefore, much research is under way to develop materials that are superconductive at ambient temperature and pressure. The kagome material is promising because it conducts electricity without losing energy at room temperature and could serve as a precursor for the development of materials with high-temperature superconductive properties.

Impacts/Disruptions

Room-temperature superconductors could pave the way for next-generation technologies that revolutionize a variety of industries. For example, the technology could offer major energy and cost savings to power-generation, -transmission, and -storage applications. Ambient-temperature superconductors could enable ultrafast and ultra-low-power electronics and the development of novel communications and quantum-computing technologies. Although many drivers exist for the development of room-temperature superconductors, the technology is still hypothetical and certainly many years from commercialization.

Kagome metals are at the proof-of-concept stage, and whether the material proves to be a room-temperature superconductor remains a question. Further research will be necessary to understand the underlying physics of kagome metals and determine whether these materials have sufficient power density for practical applications. Although the researchers fabricated the kagome material using a relatively straightforward technique, mass-producing the material in device-compatible forms may prove challenging.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Power, computing, transport, communications, consumer electronics, medicine and health care, manufacturing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Metamaterials for Underwater Cloaking

Why is this topic significant?

Metamaterials are engineered composites that exhibit properties not normally present in nature. Researchers are making progress in the development of metallic metamaterials capable of manipulating underwater sound waves in unusual ways, potentially opening cloaking applications of metamaterials in the future.

Description

In March 2018, researchers at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, New Jersey) announced the development of a prototype acoustic lens that focuses and amplifies sound waves under water. The researchers hope that the device—which incorporates a honeycomb-structured metallic metamaterial—could enable the development of cloaking technologies that bend sound-pressure waves around underwater objects, making them undetectable by sonar.

Researchers at Duke University (Durham, North Carolina) recently published research describing a metamaterial cloaking concept that they claim could increase the propulsion efficiency of an underwater object by reducing its drag and wake. The researchers claim that passing an electrical current through a metamaterial comprising metal wires and coils would generate an electric field that causes the acceleration of the object and surrounding water to match, eliminating the object's wake. The technology could help objects evade detection by radar as well as by some sonar and visual means.

Metamaterials are also under development that could potentially aid in the detection of underwater objects. For example, in January 2018, researchers at Hokkaido University (Sapporo, Japan) and Yonsei University (Seoul, South Korea) announced the development of a metallic metamaterial that they claim increases water-to-air sound transmission from 0.1% to 30%.

Implications

The unique properties of metamaterials derive from the material's ordered macrostructure rather than from the material's composition. However, metals have many properties (such as strength and conductivity) that make them attractive for use in metamaterials. The technology offers design flexibility and potentially many commercial-development opportunities because engineers can tune the properties of metamaterials by adapting the materials' structure and shape.

However, metamaterials' property development and characterization is immature and complex, requiring the use of modeling and simulation techniques. Cloaking devices are still at the concept-modeling stage, although research in metallic metamaterials is bringing the concept of invisibility cloaking a step closer to reality. Further work is necessary to experimentally validate the theoretical properties of metamaterials and to reduce the size and weight of the technology, which are currently prohibitively large for practical applications. Advances in metal 3D printing have the potential to accelerate metallic metamaterial research and development by enabling researchers to fabricate intricate metallic structures rapidly and with high precision.

Impacts/Disruptions

Metamaterial technologies are beginning to penetrate the commercial sphere; for example, a handful of companies have commercialized metamaterial antennas for communications applications. However, metamaterial cloaking is in its infancy, and the technology is unlikely to make a commercial impact within the next decade. Metamaterial cloaking devices, if technologically feasible, could have a major impact on a variety of industries, with profound implications for privacy and national security. For example, the technology could be invaluable in helping defense organizations gain strategic advantage by enabling them to conceal sea-based assets such as submarines or missiles. Nearer-term and potentially more realistic applications of acoustic metamaterials might include enhanced oceanographic or biomedical imaging.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Defense, security, communications, navigation, transport, fishing, search and rescue, health care, conservation, oceanography

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: