Not pictured: A convenient terrestrial solar panel. Image from thebadastronomer Flickr stream, via CC.
Light can't escape a black hole. Some people look at this fact and get the shudders. Others think, "Hey, that would make a really effective solar panel!"
Or, rather, it might if not for that whole "massive, crushing force of gravity" problem. MIT's Technology Review has a neat piece about scientists trying get around that minor hiccup. They're working with light-distorting metamaterials, the stuff you frequently see written up in stories about the coming of futuristic cloaking devices, alongside references to Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. But instead of bending light around the metamaterial, these researchers are focusing on a weirder--and, in my opinion, much cooler--goal.
...a metamaterial that distorts space so severely that light entering it (in this case microwaves) cannot escape.Their black hole consists of 60 layers of printed circuit board arranged in concentric circles (see picture below). The printed circuit boards are coated in a thin layer of copper from which Qiang and Tie have etched two types of pattern that either resonate at microwave frequency or do not. They've measured microwaves at 18 GHz going in and none coming out. And the circular symmetry of their metamaterial means that the microwaves are absorbed in all directions at once.
There you have it: The light-capturing power of a black hole, without the teeny inconvenience of being smooshed. Incorporate the material in solar collectors, and you could end up with a much more efficient way of harnessing the sun for energy.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.