BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Will humans ever control lightning? Could we
make the invisible visible, and vice versa?
It's those questions and more that researchers such as Natalia
Litchinitser, an associate professor of electrical engineering at
the University at Buffalo, are exploring in the evolving field of
Optics, or the science of light, is a centuries-old branch of
physics that examines the properties and behavior of light,
including its interaction with matter, and the instruments that use
and detect it.
Modern optics refers to advancements starting in the 2oth
century to present. Examples include high-powered lasers,
light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and solar panels.
The synergy of two branches of modern optics -- metamaterials
and singular optics -- is fueling even more innovative research,
Litchinitser wrote in an essay published Aug. 31 in the journal
Science. The essay can be found at http://www.sciencemag.org.
"Metamaterials and singular optics are two fascinating branches
of modern optics that until recently were rapidly developing in
parallel yet independently," Litchinitser writes.
The field of metamaterials focuses on the development of manmade
structures that exhibit optical, acoustical and mechanical
properties not found in nature. They have many potential uses, such
as creating high-resolution imaging devices and improved sensors.
They're also used to make cloaking devices that might someday
render objects invisible.
Singular optics, meanwhile, centers on manipulating light waves
-- usually with a laser and other components -- into a corkscrew
pattern that resembles a tornado's shape. The effect, which leaves
a dark hole in the light's center, is called an optical vortex.
Like metamaterials, singular optics has many potential
applications, including improving bandwidth efficiency and data
processing rates. It also may enable researchers to build light
beams that, when pointed into a storm cloud, could control
lightning to avoid potential strikes with airports, power plants or
other sensitive structures.
A small but growing number of researchers began combining
elements of metamaterials and singular optics last decade with the
financial support of the Department of Defense, NASA and other
federal agencies, Litchinitser said.
Litchinitser's research received a boost last year when the
Defense Department awarded her and fellow researchers Alexander N.
Cartwright and Grover Swartzlander a $1.4 million grant. A UB
professor of electrical engineering, Cartwright is UB's vice
president for research and economic development. Swartzlander is a
physics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The researchers -- along with a team of postgraduate, graduate
and undergraduate students -- are using elements of singular optics
and metamaterials to develop new technology designed to process
greater amounts of information quicker than traditional
Because the research centers partially on developing synthetic
materials, there's also an opportunity to work with UB's Center of
Excellence in Materials Informatics. The center, which the state
approved in March, will focus on developing synthetic materials
designed to replace rare minerals used in smartphones, hybrid car
batteries and other devices. For more information about the center,
The potential for metamaterials and singular optics is perhaps
best summed up at the conclusion of Litchinitser's essay.
"Metamaterials are poised to bring new dimensions to the science
and applications of complex light..." the essay says.