Using a tabletop femtosecond laser powered from a regular wall electrical outlet, University of Rochester optical scientists can change any metal to have any color. Picture is Guo in lab at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester (photo credit Richard Baker, University of Rochester). This technique will also be adaptable to future rapid manufacturing and rapid prototyping.
Chunlei Guo, the researcher who a year ago used intense laser light to alter the properties of a variety of metals to render them pitch black, has pushed the same process further in a paper in today’s Applied Physics Letters. He now believes it’s possible to alter the properties of any metal to turn it any color—even multi-colored iridescence like a butterfly’s wings.
Gold Aluminum, Blue Titanium, Gold Platinum (photo credit Richard Baker, University of Rochester)
Guo and his assistant, Anatoliy Vorobeyv, use an incredibly brief but incredibly intense laser burst that changes the surface of a metal, forming nanoscale and microscale structures that selectively reflect a certain color to give the appearance of a specific color or combinations of colors.
Guo’s black metal, with its very high absorption properties, is ideal for any application where capturing light is desirable. The potential applications range from making better solar energy collectors, to more advanced stealth technology, he says. The ultra-brief/ultra-intense light Guo uses is produced by a femtosecond laser, which produces pulses lasting only a few quadrillionths of a second. A femtosecond is to a second what a second is to about 32 million years. During its brief burst, Guo’s laser unleashes as much power as the entire electric grid of North America does, all focused onto a spot the size of a needlepoint.
The intense blast forces the surface of the metal to form nanostructures—pits, globules, and strands that response incoming light in different ways depending on the way the laser pulse sculpted the structures. Since the structures are smaller than the wavelength of light, the way they reflect light is highly dependent upon their specific size and shape, says Guo. Varying the laser intensity, pulse length, and number of pulses, allows Guo to control the configuration of the nanostructures, and hence control what color the metal reflects.
To alter an area of metal the size of a dime currently takes 30 minutes or more, but the researchers are working on refining the technique. Fortunately, despite the incredible intensity involved, the femtosecond laser can be powered by a simple wall outlet, meaning that when the process is refined, implementing it should be relatively simple.