Two years ago a team of engineers amazed the world (Harry Potter fans in particular) by developing the technology needed to make an invisibility cloak. Now researchers are creating laboratory-engineered wonder materials that can conceal objects from almost anything that travels as a wave. That includes light and sound and—at the subatomic level—matter itself. And lest you think that cloaking applies only to the intangible world, 2008 even brought a plan for using cloaking techniques to protect shorelines from giant incoming waves.
Engineer Xiang Zhang, whose University of California at Berkeley lab is behind much of this work, says, “We can design materials that have properties that never exist in nature.”
These engineered substances, known as metamaterials, get their unusual properties from their size and shape, not their chemistry. Because of the way they are composed, they can shuffle waves—be they of light, sound, or water—away from an object. To cloak something, concentric rings of the metamaterial are placed around the object to be concealed. Tiny structures—like loops or cylinders—within the rings divert the incoming waves around the object, preventing both reflection and absorption. The waves meet up again on the other side, appearing just as they would if nothing were there.
The first invisibility cloak, designed by engineers at Duke University and Imperial College London, worked for only a narrow band of microwaves. Xiang and his colleagues created metamaterials that can bend visible light backward—a much greater challenge because visible light waves are so small, under 700 nanometers wide. That meant the engineers had to devise cloaking components only tens of nanometers apart.