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Using a new class of artificial materials, scientists at Duke University have designed a sensor that compresses images far more efficiently than existing technologies like JPEG. The materials, called metamaterials, have exotic qualities that bend light, X-rays and radio waves in unusual ways, says a report in The New York Times.

These materials can be expected to be commercially available within two years for a wide array of applications, including radio communications, security and automotive safety.

In 2006, the Duke researchers made headlines by demonstrating that an “invisibility cloak” could be created by bending the light that strikes a metamaterial.

A cost advantage of the new technology is that it permits image compression to be performed directly by the sensor hardware, rather than by the specialized hardware and software in use today.

Although the cost of optical sensors has fallen rapidly, automobile manufacturers have been searching for alternatives to expensive laser radar, or Lidar, to provide sensors that work in a range of natural light conditions, including night, dust clouds and snowstorms.

The current generation of airport millimeter-wave security scanners has gained popularity because they do not rely on X-ray radiation and its attendant health risks. But they require an elaborate mechanical arm that sweeps around a passenger standing in a scanning booth.

Metamaterials bend radiation more sharply than natural materials. One of their strangest qualities is the ability to create a structure with what scientists call a “negative refractive index” — a behavior of light and other forms of radiation that is not found when light waves pass through materials like glass or water. They can be aimed in many different directions, or used in parallel to increase bandwidth.

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