‘Squid skin’ metamaterials project yields vivid color display

Rice University's new color display technology is capable of producing dozens of colors, including rich red, green and blue tones comparable to those found in high-definition LCD displays. Credit: J. Olson/Rice University
Rice University‘s new color display technology is capable of producing dozens of colors, including rich red, green and blue tones comparable to those found in high-definition LCD displays. Credit: J. Olson/Rice University
The quest to create artificial “squid skin” — camouflaging metamaterials that can “see” colors and automatically blend into the background — is one step closer to reality, thanks to a breakthrough color-display technology unveiled this week by Rice University’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP).

The new full-color display technology uses aluminum nanoparticles to create the vivid red, blue and green hues found in today’s top-of-the-line LCD televisions and monitors. The technology is described in a new study that will be posted online this week in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The breakthrough is the latest in a string of recent discoveries by a Rice-led team that set out in 2010 to create metamaterials capable of mimicking the camouflage abilities of cephalopods — the family of marine creatures that includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish.

“Our goal is to learn from these amazing animals so that we could create new materials with the same kind of distributed light-sensing and processing abilities that they appear to have in their skins,” said LANP Director Naomi Halas, a co-author of the PNAS study. She is the principal investigator on a $6 million Office of Naval Research grant for a multi-institutional team that includes marine biologists Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and Thomas Cronin of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“We know cephalopods have some of the same proteins in their skin that we have in our retinas, so part of our challenge, as engineers, is to build a material that can ‘see’ light the way their skin sees it, and another challenge is designing systems that can react and display vivid camouflage patterns,” Halas said.

LANP’s new color display technology delivers bright red, blue and green hues from five-micron-square pixels that each contains several hundred aluminum nanorods. By varying the length of the nanorods and the spacing between them, LANP researchers Stephan Link and Jana Olson showed they could create pixels that produced dozens of colors, including rich tones of red, green and blue that are comparable to those found in high-definition LCD displays.

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