November 4, 2010

New Light-Bending Material Could Make Matter Invisible

Researchers at the University of St. Andrews have devised a material, comprised solely of tiny atoms that can interact with light, which brings the possible invention of an invisibility cloak one step closer to becoming a reality.

Writing in the Thursday edition of the New Journal of Physics, Dr. Andrea Di Falco and her colleagues describe Metaflex, a flexible metamaterial that interrupts the flow of light rays and forces them to flow around the object which it covers--"rather like water that bends around a rock in a stream," according to a Wednesday article by AFP.

Using miniscule meta-atoms, the researchers note that Metaflex could theoretically make matter invisible to the naked eye, much like the invisibility cloak featured in the Harry Potter series of novels and motion pictures and other popular works of fiction.

"Metamaterials give us the ultimate handle on manipulating the behavior of light," Di Falco said in a statement. "The impact of our new material Meta-flex is ubiquitous.  It could be possible to use Meta-flex for creating smart fabrics placed on disposable contact lenses to create superlenses that could further enhance vision. Typical lenses generally have some form of limitation, such as aberration or limited resolution, but these perfect lenses would have none of these deficiencies."

In an interview with BBC Science and Technology Reporter Jason Palmer, Imperial College London physicist Ortwin Hess, who was not involved with the research, called the discovery "a huge step forward in very many ways"¦ It clearly isn't an invisibility cloak yet--but it's the right step toward that."

Hess told Palmer that the next step in the research will likely be finding a way to characterize changes in the material's optical properties that occur when it is folded or bent. The sensitivity to those motions could alter how Metaflex is ultimately used, he says.

If it is sensitive to movements, it might be useful for future camera-style lenses, but if it is resistant to them, it could be more useful in something like contact lenses. As far as that invisibility cloak? "Harry Potter has to wait still," Hess told BBC News on Wednesday.

Images Courtesy Institute of Physics


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