It's No Mirage as Three University of Texas at Dallas Profs Create a Cloaking Device

Don't know how we missed this scientific breakthrough making the rounds in the last couple of days. Perhaps it was hiding behind sheets of heated-up carbon nanotubes?

Those are how you make things appear invisible, according to the work done over the last five years by Ali Aliev, Yuri Gartstein and Ray Baughman of the University of Texas at Dallas's NanoTech Institute. On Tuesday their discovery was revealed in the journal Nanotechnology, in a piece titled "Mirage effect from thermally modulated transparent carbon nanotube sheets." There's a video on the other side that shows how this works, but I'll let the Institute of Physics explain:

[Carbon nanotubes] have such unique properties, such as having the density of air but the strength of steel, that they have been extensively studied and put forward for numerous applications; however it is their exceptional ability to conduct heat and transfer it to surrounding areas that makes them an ideal material to exploit the so-called "mirage effect."

The mirage effect, frequently observed in deserts or on long roads in the summer, is an optical phenomenon in which light rays are bent to produce a displaced image of distant objects or the sky. The most common example of a mirage is when an observer appears to see pools of water on the ground. This occurs because the air near the ground is a lot warmer than the air higher up, causing lights rays to bend upward towards the viewer's eye rather than bounce off the surface.
Aliev tells Unfair Park this morning he and his colleagues began down "the path toward invisibility" five years ago. It wasn't easy; their early work involved bending light at certain angles, which never quite got there. Then they hit upon the carbon nanotubes, which you could heat up to 2,000 degrees to help create that mirage effect -- not so different from what you see on hot pavement on an August afternoon. And they heat up and cool down quickly, giving them an almost instant on-off.

Question is now: What's the biggest thing you can make disappear behind the hot tubes? A person? A vehicle? A building? A Romulan Bird of Prey?

"Touching it, you can destroy the seal," he says, "so we're looking for a way to make a real cloak. We don't know, to be honest. We're working on this, coming up with different ways to protect it."

And, yes, he's seen the Star Trek episode with the cloaking device. "Many times." But, he says: "Our goal is scientific." As for the buzz about their discovery, Aliev notes: "There's been a lot of noise around it. It's very exciting, but it's only the beginning. We're working toward finding a way to change the shape of objects this way, making an object not only invisible but also unrecognizable."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky