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UCF develops invisibility technology

By Nada Hassanein
On April 6, 2014

The UCF NanoScience Technology Center has been engineering artificial nanostructures called metamaterials that, when formed in layers over a surface, can bend light in such a way that the object it is covering is not seen by certain infrared detectors.

So, does this imply potential Harry Potter-like invisibility from the human eye, or will military jets suddenly fly Wonder-Woman style? Not quite.

“The human eye is actually very sensitive over a broad spectral range … to make something [not visible] over such a broad band is a big challenge, so I think we are not yet there,” said Debashis Chanda, an assistant professor at UCF. “At this stage, I think we are focused more on a detector level so we can make things not visible to the detectors.”

Funded in part by the Florida Space Institute and U.S. Department of Defense, Chanda’s research has been exploring nanotechnological methods to control the bending of light since 2009.

“The key point is to control light in a better way over a realistic surface,” Chanda said.

Metamaterials help with this because they bend light in a way not found in nature. While other research teams have created metamaterials similar to these, they were only about one-tenth of a micron in size, equal to one-tenth the thickness of a human hair, Chanda said. His metamaterial is about four-by-four inches, a significant progress in size. This patterned material can be replicated to cover a larger surface.

“We are one of the first ones to show that this could really be done over a bigger inch-scale [versus micron-scale],” Chanda’s said.

His model is four-by-four inches.

He says this small metamaterial pattern can be replicated over a larger area to eventually cover an entire surface potentially by using a nanotransfer printing technique — similar to the ink stamping process — by growing a nanoscopic pattern and printing it.

“The whole point here is that we make an engineered nanostructure, which can actually be done over a large area,” Chanda said. “There are a lot of implications for this kind of development … [we could] potentially control the propagation of light through those kinds of structures.”

The micro-scale research could lead to sizable real-world applications.

“By improving the technique, the team hopes to be able to create larger pieces of the material with engineered optical properties, which would make it practical to produce for real-life device applications,” said Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala of UCF News & Information in a press release Monday. “For example, the team could develop large-area metamaterial absorbers, which would enable fighter jets to remain invisible from detection systems.”

Other than potential military jet coverage, or “camouflage,” Chanda and his team are exploring other functional benefits of this technology using the same metamaterial concept, such as biological sensors.

“We are working to make a sensor where as soon as some small change happens, say you have a blood sugar change, or a blood lipid change, or some kind of injury or a kind of cancer cell in your body … we could detect biomarkers [created by your body] at an early stage,” Chanda said.

Theoretically, the use of metamaterial on or around that area of the body could help detect a location shift in the minimum reflection of light, implying the presence of an abnormality in that area.

In other words, light wouldn’t reflect off the location at the normal peak wavelength that it should.

The research team also consisted of Ph.D. students from the UCF College of Physics and College of Optics & Photonics. The team created several electromagnetic simulations using high-end computer programs to design the metamaterial structure before creating it.

“Controlling light has always been mankind’s challenge,” Chanda said.

He said he is looking at a time frame of a few years before seeing functional use of this technology.


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