A new take on the Midas touch - changing the colour of gold


Gold film used as a substrate

Red gold, green gold - a ground-breaking initiative has found a way of changing the colour of the world’s most iconic precious metal. 

A University of Southampton team have discovered that by embossing tiny raised or indented patterns onto the metal’s surface, they can change the way it absorbs and reflects light – ensuring our eyes don’t see it as ‘golden’ in colour at all.

The finding results from a major initiative funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) targeting 
the development of a new generation of 
nanotechnology-enabled materials. 


Gold substrate is loaded into the focused ION beam milling system

Equally applicable to other metals such as silver and aluminium, this breakthrough opens up the prospect of colouring metals without having to coat or chemically treat them. This could deliver valuable economic, environmental and other benefits. 

The technique could be harnessed in a wide range of industries for anything from manufacturing jewellery to making banknotes and documents harder to forge. 

“This is the first time the visible colour of metal has been changed in this way,” says Professor Nikolay Zheludev, Deputy Director of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research 
Centre, who led the project. 

“The colours of the objects we see all around us are determined by the way light interacts with those objects. For instance, an object that reflects red light but absorbs other wavelengths will appear red to the human eye.” 

“This is the fundamental principle we have exploited in this project. By embossing metals with patterns only around 100 nanometres across, we’ve found that we can control which wavelengths of light the metal absorbs and which it reflects.”*


Optical microscope image of the metamaterial sample. [The sub-wavelength metamaterial nanostructuring produces uniform colours dependent on the etch depth. The surrounding surface is unstructured and therefore has the normal colour of gold]

The precise shape and height or depth of the patterns determine exactly how light behaves when it strikes the metal and therefore what colour is created. The technique can be used to produce a wide range of colours on a given metal. 

A silver ring, for example, could be decorated with a number of different patterns, making different parts of it appear red, green and so on; metal features with sophisticated optical properties almost impossible to imitate could be used as security features.


Scanning electron microscope image detail of the intaglio nanofabricated design. [Part of the ‘E’ under scanning electron microscope at 20,000x magnification]

The nano-patterning is carried out at the research level using well-established techniques such as ion beam milling, which may be envisaged as sand-blasting on the atomic scale. However, the concept may be scaled for industrial production using such processes as nano-imprint, whereby large areas are stamped out from a master template in a manner comparable to CD/DVD production. 

“We’ve filed a patent application to cover our work,” Professor Zheludev says, “and we’re currently talking to a number of organisations about taking our breakthrough towards commercialisation.” 


*Note: The key to this capability is the fact that each individual feature contained within the pattern is smaller than the wavelength of the incident light. Technically speaking, the nano-patterned metal is therefore a ‘metamaterial’, engineered to provide properties not found in nature. 

One hundred nanometres is about 1/400 of the width of a human hair. The following papers have now been published on this work: 

• J. Zhang, J. Y. Ou, N. Papasimakis, Y. Chen, K. F. MacDonald, and N. I. Zheludev, “Continuous metal plasmonic frequency selective surfaces,” Optics Express 19, 23279 (2011) [doi: 10.1364/OE.19.023279] 

• J. Zhang, J. Y. Ou, K. F. MacDonald, and N. I. Zheludev, “Optical response of plasmonic relief meta-surfaces” Journal of Optics 14, 114002 (2012) [doi:10.1088/2040-8978/14/11/114002] 

• “Method and device for controlling the color of metals” (US patent application 13/182,084 (13/07/2011); GB application 1011720.8 (13/07/2010)) 

The breakthrough has been achieved as part of the ‘Nanostructured Photonic Metamaterials’ initiative, a 6-year EPSRC-supported project at the University of Southampton’s Centre for Photonic Metamaterials. Receiving just over £5M in EPSRC funding and due to run until December 2015, this initiative is building on the previous ‘Nanophotonics Portfolio Partnership’ which received nearly £4M in EPSRC support.

Copyright University of Southampton 2006