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Scientists Close In on Invisibility Cloak

Scientists Close In on Invisibility Cloak

Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have made progress in hiding objects from microwaves using special materials -- a development that could bring them a step closer to cloaking them from visible light. However, they're still a long way off from the kind of thing imagined in fantasy movies.

By Richard Adhikari
01/27/12 5:00 AM PT

That invisibility cloak Harry Potter throws around himself to hide in plain sight soon may be fact, rather than fiction. Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have demonstrated one -- sort of.

The researchers hid an 18 cm cylindrical tube from microwaves by putting it in a shell of plasmonic metamaterial.

Metamaterials are artificial materials engineered to have properties that may not occur in nature.

Plasmonic metamaterials are negative index metamaterials, meaning they are, in essence, invisible at a certain frequency range.

How You See It, How You Don't

When light strikes an object, it bounces off the object's surface. We see an object when the light bouncing off its surface reaches our eyes.

However, plasmonic metamaterials circumvent that process by scattering light at a frequency that cancels out the rays of light bouncing off them. That means the light from a surface covered with a plasmonic metamaterial won't reach your eyes from any angle.

The researchers cloaked the tube used in the test with a shell of plasmonic metamaterial, then directed microwaves toward it and mapped the resulting scattered light both around the tube and further away.

The cloak was most effective when the microwaves were at a frequency of 3.1 GHz and issued over a moderately broad bandwidth.

Rushing Toward Invisibility

The experiment follows on from a similar one conducted at the university in August.

The next step for the researchers is to succeed in cloaking a three-dimensional object in visible light. However, that may be much more difficult.

"The object concealed was 18 cm, and the length of a microwave is from 1 mm to one meter, and the wave was tuned to the object in order to get it to vanish," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"If you need to have that much control over an object, it likely would be just as easy and far cheaper to have people look at something else," Enderle said. "You should hire a magician and not a scientist."

A research team member did not respond to our request for further details.

For Whose Eyes Only?

Research into methods of rendering objects invisible has been going on for years, and efforts in this field appear to have speeded up.

Earlier this month, researchers at Cornell University demonstrated a way to cloak an event in time.

In October, scientists from the University of Texas in Dallas demonstrated a cloaking device that works best underwater and has an on/off switch. They used sheets of carbon nanotubes -- sheets of carbon one molecule thick shaped into cylindrical tubes.

There's considerable interest in this field because "there's massive defense money available for technology like this, and research lives off defense spending," Enderle said.


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