Scientists at the University of St. Andrews have developed “smart flexible materials” named meta-flex that are made of tiny meta-atoms, which are engineered mixtures of metal and circuit board materials.
Invisibility can be achieved by manipulating light, and while metamaterials have previously been produced to manipulate light so that objects are invisible at longer wavelengths, using this technique to manipulate visible light is more difficult. This is because the short wavelength of visible light means that the metamaterial atoms would have to be so small that they couldn’t be manufactured – until now.
The discovery could pave the way for the creation of “invisible” clothing, the researchers believe. Previous studies involving the development of such clothing have been funded by military groups. While cloaks have been engineered that that can hide objects from visible light in the past, they were formed using meta-atoms that can only exist on flat, hard surfaces rather than flexible ones. The Scottish researchers were able to develop a way of separating the atoms from the hard surfaces by stacking them in a lattice pattern, allowing them to now be used in creating flexible products like fabric.
One of the earliest examples was in 1933, when Claude Raines starred in the film “The Invisible Man,” who took “monocane” and became undetectable to the human eye. The film was an adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel published nearly 40 years earlier, one of the first science fiction stories to describe invisibility. Later in the 20th century, in the world of comics, Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four uses her “psionic” powers to throw mysterious fields around herself or other objects, rendering them invisible. More recently, the popular fictional character Harry Potter also shows off his invisibility cloak.
One of two challenges being faced by researchers in the creation of smart flexible materials to create invisible cloak is from visible light because its short wavelength demands the metamaterial atoms to be very small. The other challenge is the fabrication of metamaterials that can be separated from the hard surfaces they are developed on to be used in the construction of more flexible materials. The new material developed by the Scottish scientists has overcome both of the above mentioned challenges.
Andrea Di Falco of St Andrews University has published a paper in the New Journal of Physics, describing a way of fabricating nanostructures, which are small enough to manipulate the shorter waves of visible light, on a thin polymer film rather than the rigid silicon that has previously been used. This creates a flexible metamaterial which could make Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak fact rather than fiction.
“It could be possible to use meta-flex for creating smart fabrics and, in the paper, we show how easy it is to place meta-flex on disposable contact lenses, showing how flexible super lenses could be used for visual prostheses.” The research is published in Thursday’s issue of the New Journal of Physics.
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