The dome-shaped device that fits over a patient’s head looks like it might have come out of a Dr. Seuss tale. But the odd-looking gadget could revolutionize medical imaging, College of Engineering Professor Xin Zhang says.

Zhang’s work was supported by the University’s Rajen Kilachand Fund for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering, which facilitates interdisciplinary research and solutions to some of today’s biggest challenges in the life sciences.

The helmet, developed by Zhang and her team at the Photonics Center, is fashioned from a series of magnetic metamaterial resonators, which are made from 3D-printed plastic scaffolds wrapped in copper wiring and grouped on an array to channel the magnetic field of the MRI machine. The device can be worn during a brain scan to boost MRI performance, leading to crisper and faster images for doctors and less cost for patients. Their research, which has received funding from the National Institutes of Health, drew widespread attention this year from scientific communities and media around the world.

Metamaterials are a type of engineered structure created from small unit cells that are unspectacular alone—but when grouped together in a precise way, they get new superpowers not found in nature. Metamaterials, for instance, can bend, absorb, or manipulate electromagnetic, sound, or radio waves.

Eventually, Zhang says, the magnetic metamaterial could be used in conjunction with cheaper, low-field MRI machines, which could make scanning technology more widely available, particularly in the developing world.