June 22, 2020

Alù will lead an international team of scientists whose work could lead to improvements in the Internet of Things, biomedical applications, and medical imaging and wireless technology.

Andrea Alù
Andrea AlÃ

When an engineer chooses a material to work with, they pick it based on its properties — the transparency of glass, or the strength of steel. With metamaterials, things work the other way around. Scientists design metamaterials at the nanoscale. With such precision, scientists can control what properties the larger, bulkier material will have.

One of these properties is the way that waves, such as light or sound, behave. Waves form the foundation of many modern technologies, so being able to precisely control them could revolutionize those technologies. But the way waves travel and interact within metamaterials is enormously complex, requiring multiple fields of science and new theories to completely understand and take advantage of them.

Thanks to a grant of up to $16 million from the Simons Foundation, a team of scientists led by Professor Andrea Alù, founding director of the Photonics Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center (ASRC), will now take a deep dive into understanding wave transport in metamaterials. The key to these explorations, the researchers say, lies in the principles of symmetry. The team’s work could lead to greater sensing capabilities for the Internet of Things, improvements in biomedical applications, and extreme control of sound waves for medical imaging and wireless technology.

The award is one of the largest grants to a Graduate Center faculty member to date and follows on the heels of a $9.2 million National Institutes of Health grant awarded to Professor Patrizia Casaccia (Biology) in 2019. Also in 2019, Alù was awarded a $3 million Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Simons collaboration includes researchers from Harvard University, ESPCI Paris, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others. The core team will be based in New York, with participation from CUNY graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

“Dr. Alù and his colleagues have found ways to engineer materials that can modulate waves in new and exciting ways,” said Graduate Center Dean for the Sciences Joshua Brumberg. “The research team, which brings together theoreticians, material scientists, engineers, and photonics experts, is a great example of the interdisciplinary science the ASRC was founded to support.”

Researchers have tried to address the complexity of wave propagation in metamaterials via many fields of physics, and have recently realized that symmetry could act as the guiding light. Symmetries present at very small scales play a big role in how materials act at a larger scale. These can be as simple as rotational symmetry or the kind of reflection symmetry you see in a mirror, but there are more complex varieties as well.

“A good example is parity-time symmetry, defined as the special symmetry obeyed by objects that fall into themselves after we apply a reflection in space and a reflection in time. There are several optical devices and materials, some that we have built, that satisfy this special symmetry,” Alù said.

The collaboration will use symmetry principles as the lens through which to understand wave transport, ultimately developing a unified theory that will allow scientists to design metamaterials for extreme wave control.

“This is truly a dream opportunity” Alù said. “This collaboration will allow us to put together a world-leading team of scientists that will lead exciting explorations of new materials driven by different classes of symmetries.”

Learn more about the Simons Collaboration on Extreme Wave Phenomena Based on Symmetries.