Smith Shares Descartes Award for Artificial Material that Reverses Light's Properties

December 3, 2005

Associate Professor David R. Smith of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering and a team of European researchers have won a Descartes Research Prize for their work in developing left-handed metamaterials, artificial composites that reverse the usual properties of light. The awards ceremony was held at the Royal Society in London on December 1-2, 2005.

Selected from a pool of 85 research teams from 22 countries, Smith shares this year's top European Union prize for research with Sir John Pendry (Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, UK), Martin Wegener (University of Karlsruhe, Germany), Ekmel Ozbay (Bilkent University, Turkey) and Costas Soukoulis (Iowa State University and FORTH, Greece).

“It’s great to receive this kind of recognition for our work,” Smith said. “This group of people has collectively made many significant contributions to really establish this field. It’s been a real collaborative effort.”

In 2000, Smith demonstrated in Physical Review Letters the first realization of a left-handed metamaterial, a composite of copper rings and wires that reverses familiar properties of light. In the journal Science the following year, he reported the first experimental demonstration that a wedge-shaped metamaterial gives negative refraction, meaning that light bends at a negative angle with respect to the angle at which it enters the material.

In natural materials, light always refracts at a positive angle, Smith explained. “The novel properties of artificial metamaterials therefore bring a degree of design flexibility that was not possible before,” Smith said.

The initially controversial finding was later confirmed by other groups and named one of Science Magazine’s top 10 breakthroughs of the year in 2003.

Many applications for left-handed materials are anticipated. The awarded team has already shown how the ability to focus radio waves could lead to smaller and improved magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Metamaterials also have many potential applications for the communications industry, including antennas and waveguides that are much smaller and lighter than those of today.

The Descartes Research Prize, now in its sixth year, is the most important prize awarded by the European Union in the field of science, recognizing outstanding scientific and technological results achieved through international collaborative research in diverse disciplines. Winners are selected by a grand jury of experts from the worlds of science, industry and the public.