Tyler Hamilton is an adviser with the non-profit MaRS Discovery District in Toronto working with cleantech companies across Canada.
Five years ago, scientists from Canada and Europe published research that explained how chemical reactions in firefly guts can cause these little creatures to glow so bright.
The secret, they concluded, wasn't just in the belly – it was the belly. The abdomens of fireflies have structures that are optically optimized to boost light output. This observation opened up the possibility of designing advanced films that can significantly boost the efficiency of LEDs and other lights.
But why stop at lighting? What other ways could we manipulate light, and even electromagnetic waves, to tackle new problems or enhance the performance of products we rely on today?
George Palikaras, founder and chief executive of Dartmouth-based Metamaterial Technologies Inc., has spent the past eight years asking and delivering answers to that question. His company has come up with an economical way to produce smart materials that can block, capture or amplify light, translating into commercial applications that affect everything from aviation safety to clean-energy generation to the future of autonomous vehicles. His first go-to-market effort: protecting against laser light attacks.
Mr. Palikaras, a big sports fan, had noticed that soccer hooligans in Europe were beginning to use laser pens to temporarily blind members of opposition teams – for example, a goalie during a penalty kick.
Then came a conversation with a friend at the European Aviation Safety Agency who told him laser strikes against airplane pilots were rising fast. He has since learned that attacks hit a peak in 2015, doubling to 21 per night. Closer to home, Transport Canada estimates there were more than 500 reported incidents in all of 2016.
"It's a growing problem," says Mr. Palikaras, who believes many laser strikes aren't being reported, possibly because pilots are now reluctant to divert flights or trigger what's likely to be a time-consuming investigation. A single serious laser strike, he learned, can cost an airline up to $125,000.
As a frequent flyer not comfortable with such vulnerability, Mr. Palikaras and his team are developing a transparent film that blocks laser strikes on cockpit windows and eyewear that doesn't obscure a pilot's view.
In 2014, Metamaterial Technologies partnered with Airbus to co-develop, flight test and commercialize the films, which the company has branded metaAIR.
Autonomous vehicles could be next. Mr. Palikaras points to a 2015 study in which British researchers used a low-cost laser pointer to confuse the obstacle detection sensors on a self-driving car, causing the vehicle to make potentially deadly mistakes. If chatter at last month's Detroit auto show was any indication, auto makers are growing concerned and searching for solutions.
But blocking light is only one trick up Metamaterial's sleeve. The company is also designing films to improve how light is captured, such as on solar panels. The film is made with nanoscale structures that, instead of deflecting light, can collect it from any direction and trap it so it's more easily absorbed by the underlying solar cell.
Mr. Palikaras says Metamaterial's film would greatly boost the efficiency of conventional solar cells and allow them to be made 70 per cent thinner, dramatically reducing both cost and weight. It also opens up the potential for flexible solar products that, because of their ability to capture and efficiently use indirect sunlight, can be economically added to curved surfaces – for example, self-driving cars, drones, airplanes and blimp-like airships.
Lockheed Martin, for one, is keen. Last June, the aerospace and defence contractor agreed to invest $5.6-million in Metamaterial as part of a $17.9-million effort to develop the solar film, called metaSOLAR, for mobility applications. Sustainable Development Technology Canada threw in another $5.4-million in October to support the project. This followed an earlier $8.3-million Series A financing led by Toronto-based Radar Capital.
"Lockheed Martin is looking for new ultralightweight solar cells that can absorb light from as wide an angle as possible," Mr. Palikaras says. "There are all sorts of new markets Lockheed is exploring with this."
That's the beauty of creating new functional materials at the nanoscale – it opens up new possibilities. Boosting the performance of MRI machines so more people can be scanned a day, building windows for vehicles that never get fogged up or icy and, yes, boosting the light output of LEDs – firefly style – are all on Metamaterial's to-do list.
But the company is doing more than just creating these materials. It has, through the acquisition of a small Silicon Valley nanofabrication company named Rolith, figured out a way to make its films in large commercial volumes using a roll-to-roll lithographic process. It's multiple times faster than existing methods and uses a fraction of the power.
"That makes our process cheaper and greener," Mr. Pailkaras says. "My hope is that we can democratize nanomaterials, taking state-of-the-art technology and basically scaling it."