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See Inside July 2006

The Quest for the Superlens

Built from "metamaterials" with bizarre, controversial optical properties, a superlens could produce images that include details finer than the wavelength of light that is used

Almost 40 years ago Russian scientist Victor Veselago had an idea for a material that could turn the world of optics on its head. It could make light waves appear to flow backward and behave in many other counterintuitive ways. A totally new kind of lens made of the material would have almost magical attributes that would let it outperform any previously known. The catch: the material had to have a negative index of refraction ("refraction" describes how much a wave will change direction as it enters or leaves the material). All known materials had a positive value. After years of searching, Veselago failed to find anything having the electromagnetic properties he sought, and his conjecture faded into obscurity.

A startling advance recently resurrected Veselago's notion. In most materials, the electromagnetic properties arise directly from the characteristics of constituent atoms and molecules. Because these constituents have a limited range of characteristics, the millions of materials that we know of display only a limited palette of electromagnetic properties. But in the mid-1990s one of us (Pendry), in collaboration with scientists at Marconi Materials Technology in England, realized that a "material" does not have to be a slab of one substance. Rather it could gain its electromagnetic properties from tiny structures, which collectively create effects that are otherwise impossible.

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