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Metamaterials set to become mainstream

The length of time it takes to develop a new aircraft or engine, dictates a certain amount of lag before new materials are incorporated into designs, but given a little bit of time the aviation sector is only too keen to adopt innovations that improve fuel-efficiency and passenger experience.

Take advanced composites as an example. The A380 and the 787, of course, represented watersheds in the inclusion of composites in aircraft design, and now they have been incorporated into the A350, the CSeries and the LEAP, as well as finding their way on to classic aircraft – as winglets on the 737 and 767.

As advanced composites become mainstream the next technological development in materials that is on the horizon seems to be metamaterials. 

These manmade materials are engineered from layers of microscopic plastic or metal. These materials can effect light and sound waves in a way that natural materials cannot.

Over the past 10 years start-ups have begun to emerge exploring the potential commercial opportunities of developing such materials, backed by both private investors and national governments. 

According to a new report from analysts Lux Research, venture capitalists have already invested more than $100m into metamaterials companies, with governments, including the US and China, spending $200m in support of the sector.

Kymeta, a company backed by Bill Gates, is using metamaterials to develop a thin, flat satellite antenna that could sit on the surface of an aircraft’s fuselage and would use far less energy than phased-array antennas. 

Meanwhile the US National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) is investigating how metamaterials can be developed encorporating nano technologies to increase the absorption of noise. Such materials could offer thinner, lighter and more effective alternative to today’s acoustic materials.

These types of developments are set to become more and more frequent in the coming years, concludes Lux Research. And the group predicts that the use of metamaterials will become mainstream as early as 2024.

“Practical implementation of these technologies depends on cost-effective manufacturing methods,” said Anthony Vicari, the lead author of Lux’s report. “As developers discover cheaper ways to produce metamaterials, they can have a disruptive impact on industries like communications, electronics, and defence.” 

The aerospace sector is sure to be added to this list and, in time, these new materials will need to be maintained and repaired. It may be many years ahead, but metamaterials could potentially provide MROs with a new revenue stream.

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