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New device can transmit underwater sound to air

Metamaterial could improve marine-life monitoring and underwater communication, but applications are a long way off

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1:00pm, January 23, 2018
illustration of a metamaterial

SO META  A new metamaterial, illustrated, uses precise vibrations to allow underwater sound to be transmitted through it. (Blue and red show vibrations in opposite directions.)

Don’t expect to play a game of Marco Polo by shouting from beneath the pool’s surface. No one will hear you because, normally, only about 0.1 percent of sound is transmitted from water to the air. But a new type of device might one day help.

Researchers have designed a new metamaterial — a type of material that behaves in ways conventional materials can’t — that increases sound transmission to 30 percent. The metamaterial could have applications for more than poolside play. A future version might be used to detect noisy marine life or listen in on sonar use, say applied physicist Oliver Wright of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, and a team at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, who describe the metamaterial in a paper accepted to Physical Review Letters.

Currently, detection of underwater sounds happens with hydrophones, which

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