Wearable technology refers to any devices worn on (or in) the body which communicate information, usually to a nearby smartphone, via wireless signals such as WiFi and Bluetooth. You’ll probably be familiar with devices like the fitness tracker, smart watches, augmented and mixed reality headwear, and maybe even implanted devices such as biosensors for blood sugar levels, cardiac activity, and other medical conditions.
These devices need a power source to communicate, which is almost always a battery. We’ve all become resigned to the fact that the battery makes up the bulk of our smartphones to provide about a day’s worth of power. Smart watches and fitness trackers sometimes only last a day or two before needing to be recharged. This isn’t ideal and has prevented our devices from being smaller, slimmer and better designed.
However, thanks to metamaterials, this might all be about to change.
What is an electromagnetic metamaterial?
Electromagnetic metamaterials are made of conductive metal and a dielectric. These are arranged in a pattern, the size and shape of which provides the metamaterial with unique physical properties which are absent in existing materials. These include the ability to block, reflect, bend and guide electromagnetic waves. Some metamaterials can even be made into ‘invisibility cloaks’.
While a commercially-available invisibility cloak may still be a few years away (sorry Potter fans), a team of scientists at the National University of Singapore has developed and filed a patent application for a flexible metamaterial which can be integrated into clothing. The comb-shaped design, featured on last month’s cover of Nature Electronics, works by guiding electromagnetic signals (in the form of plasmon surface waves) from one device to another along its length. This allows several devices to be connected to one another via the metamaterial.
According to Nature Electronics, the metamaterial allows the devices it connects to communicate using just a thousandth of the power that conventional wireless tech requires. The metamaterial is so efficient at transmitting electromagnetic signals that it can even be used to transmit power from one device to another along its length. This eliminates the need for every connected device to need batteries at all.
As the signals travel along the metamaterial rather than being radiated outwards, the nature of the metamaterial makes it much more difficult to eavesdrop on the signals. This makes it far harder for a malicious actor to steal sensitive information being communicated.
The team has managed to achieve these advantages using materials which are robust, flexible and cheap, and can even be laundered. In view of all these advantages, we can expect to see a granted patent for this technology in the near future — any further developments are sure to be very exciting.
In the meantime, you can find out how to patent new materials by reading our guide, or learn more about IP strategies for materials innovations.