Making waves with metamaterials

Anyone who’s watched long lines of waves roll off a ship’s stern has seen what physicists call a soliton, a single wave that keeps its shape while moving at a constant speed. Apart from something to watch from the deck of a boat, these complex phenomena are a unique type of wave whose motions physicists and engineers are trying to better understand.

a round disk making a slow-motion wave over a field of small metal balls
A wave propagating across the researchers’ mechanical metamaterial at 6,000 frames per second. (Image: Penn Engineering)

 In a new study published in Physical Review Letters, Jordan Raney and graduate student Chengyang Mo used a custom mechanical metamaterial, an artificial structure with properties that are defined by geometry instead of its composition, to study this phenomenon. Made out of hundreds of interconnected rubber squares that each contain a ball bearing, researchers in Penn’s Architected Materials Laboratory used a high-speed camera to record the soliton’s movements after it was hit with a mallet. 

Their study is the first to show how these unique non-linear waves travel in a soft, two-dimensional system and provides a better understanding of these types of metamaterials, which could have future applications ranging from medical diagnostics to automobiles. 

Read more at Penn Engineering.