The material, dubbed Metaflex, has been produced by researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and once fully developed, it could signal a huge breakthrough, not only in the creation of "smart fabrics" but in the manufacture of super contact lenses that can be "used for visual prostheses," according to team leader Andrea di Falco.
Cloaking devices have appeared throughout works of science fiction, including the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" films. In the wildly popular global Harry Potter universe, an invisibility cloak is used to make a person appear to vanish. But in the world of real science, it's all about figuring out how to make a flexible film, or "metamaterial," that can manipulate light waves to make objects, like clothing, invisible.
Di Falco said that earlier studies were only able to create light-bending atoms on hard surfaces. But now, they've produced the more flexible Metaflex that could eventually be used to manufacture a smarter fabric.
In a paper published in the Nov. 4 issue of the U.K.'s New Journal of Physics, the researchers write: "Arguably, one of the most exciting applications of Metaflex is to fabricate three-dimensional flexible MMs (metamaterials) in the optical range, which can be achieved by stacking several Metaflex membranes on top of one another."
An actual, working cloak of invisibility may not be ready as a stocking stuffer for the upcoming holiday season or in time for the premiere this month of the movie "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," but the creation of the Metaflex material brings invisibility much closer to reality.
Two challenges to the creation of smart flexible materials that can cloak from visible light are making meta-atoms small enough to interact with visible light, and the fabrication of metamaterials that can be detached from the hard surfaces they are developed on to be used in more flexible constructs.
Research published today, Thursday 4 November 2010, in New Journal of Physics, details how Meta-flex, a new material designed by researchers from the University of St Andrews, overcomes both of these challenges.
Although cloaks designed to shield objects from both Terahertz and Near Infrared waves have already been designed, a flexible material designed to cloak objects from visible light poses a greater challenge because of visible light's smaller wavelength and the need to make the metamaterial's constituent part – meta-atoms – small enough to interact with visible light.
These tiny meta-atoms have been designed but they have only traditionally been realized on flat, hard surfaces, making them rigid constructs impractical for use in clothing or other possible applications that would benefit from flexibility, such as super lenses.
The research team, led by EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellow Dr Andrea Di Falco, has developed an elaborate technique which frees the meta-atoms from the hard surface ('substrate') they are constructed on. The researchers predict that stacking them together can create an independent, flexible material, which can be adopted for use in a wide range of applications.
Di Falco says, "Metamaterials give us the ultimate handle on manipulating the behaviour of light. The impact of our new material Meta-flex is ubiquitous. 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 superlenses could be used for visual prostheses."