Could We Soon Be Living in a Metamaterial World?

Simply put, metamaterials are materials that behave according to their structure, rather than their base material composition. By manipulating their internal microstructures, metamaterials can exhibit properties that would not otherwise be found in a naturally occurring material.

To date, the term has mostly been used to refer to materials which can manipulate electromagnetic waves with an unnatural refractive index. But recently, a different way of looking at metamaterials has been studied by a team at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI), who suggest that “so far, metamaterials were understood as materials – we want to think of them as machines.” A series of objects created by HPI that perform mechanical functions through their metamaterial configuration demonstrate this concept of “metamaterial mechanisms.”

For example, a metamaterial door latch is able to transform rotary handle movement into linear hatch motion, all within a singular object. It is the definition of the small-scale structure within the object that allows it to produce the desired macroscopic movement. These functional objects have no separate parts to assemble, and those made by HPI were simply made from laser-cut rubber foam. With such technology, as well as 3D printing, the fabrication of such objects could easily become more common.

Architecturally, the proposed uses of metamaterials have largely focused on those that are engineered to manipulate electromagnetic waves, which it has been suggested could be used in cloaking devices to protect military buildings from radar detection. Other possible uses of metamaterials in buildings have also included seismic and acoustic protection, also through wave manipulation.

With metamaterial mechanisms however, their architectural implications could extend beyond such specific technical applications. Laser cutting a working door handle not only solves a range of mechanical problems within a single object, it also expresses a total integration between the structure and the mechanical function of a material. What arises is a philosophy of harmonic efficiency within a material itself, which stands as a unique approach towards fabrication and reducing excess material use in the building industry.  

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