Invisibility unmasked: Chinese researchers propose uncloaking of an invisible object

Sept. 4, 2008
Certain materials behind cloaking fields may theoretically be able to undo invisibility cloaking.

Could invisibility cloaks be undone before they even become reality? A team of Chinese scientists has developed a way to unmask so-called invisibility cloaking. According to a new paper in the latest issue of Optics Express, the Optical Society's (OSA) open-access journal, certain materials underneath an invisibility cloak would allow invisible objects be seen again.1

"Cloaking is an important problem since invisibility can help survival in hostile environment," says Huanyang Chen of Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Shanghai, China). He and colleagues at Shanghair Jiao Tong and and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Hong Kong, China) have proposed a theoretical "anti-cloak" that would partially cancel the effect of the invisibility cloak, which is another important problem as it turns out.

If this sounds like science fiction, that's no surprise. From the 1933 classic The Invisible Man to the more recent installment in the Harry Potter series, devices that achieve invisibility have long been the stuff of film fantasy. In recent years, however, scientists using special types of "meta" materials have shown that these Hollywood fantasies could one day become reality after all.

These materials are effectively invisible because of the way they interact with light. All materials scatter, bounce, absorb, reflect, and otherwise alter light rays that strike them. We perceive color, for instance, because different materials and coatings interact with light differently. Transformation media cloaks are special materials that can bend light so much that it actually passes around the object completely. In 2006, scientists at Duke University demonstrated in the laboratory that an object made of metamaterial is partially invisible when viewed using microwaves.

While the idea is intriguing, the reality is far fetched. Invisibility as it has been achieved so far in the laboratory is limited, working only for a narrow band of wavelengths. Nobody has found a way yet to make an object invisible to the broad range of wavelengths our eyes are attuned to seeing, says Chen, and doing so would be a great challenge.

An even bigger problem for anyone who has aspirations to be concealed in public one day is that invisibility achieved through transformation media is a two-way street. With no light penetrating a perfect invisibility cloak, there would be no way for an invisible person to see outside. In other words, invisible people would also be blind--not exactly what Harry Potter had in mind.

But now, Chen and his colleagues have developed a way to partially cancel the invisibility cloak's cloaking effect. Their "anti-cloak" would be a material with optical properties perfectly matched to those of an invisibility cloak. This would be achieved via an anisotropic negative-refractive-index material that is impedance matched to the positive refractive index of the invisibility cloak.

While an invisibility cloak would bend light around an object, any region that came into contact with the anti-cloak would guide some light back so that it became visible. This would allow an invisible observer to see the outside by pressing a layer of anti-cloak material in contact with an invisibility cloak.

"With the anti-cloak, Potter can see outside if he wants to," says Chen.

REFERENCE:
1. H. Chen et al., Optics Express 16, 14577 (Sept. 15, 2008).

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About the Author

John Wallace | Senior Technical Editor (1998-2022)

John Wallace was with Laser Focus World for nearly 25 years, retiring in late June 2022. He obtained a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and physics at Rutgers University and a master's in optical engineering at the University of Rochester. Before becoming an editor, John worked as an engineer at RCA, Exxon, Eastman Kodak, and GCA Corporation.

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