WASHINGTON– Invisibility has long existed in the realm of imagination and fantasy, but for Army scientists and researchers studying ways to apply the latest technology to save Soldiers’ lives, fantasy is slowly becoming a reality.

Dr. Richard Hammond, a theoretical physicist who works in Optical Physics and Imaging Science at the U.S. Army’s Research Office, participated in a blogger’s roundtable to discuss the developments in the field of negative index materials research and meta materials. Developing research in these areas is making light reflect in ways it never has before – with extraordinary effect.

“Meta materials are artificial materials with versatile properties that can be tailored to fit almost any practical need,” said Hammond. These versatile properties enable it to go beyond the capabilities of natural materials, including control of the light at an unprecedented level.

“Similar to general relativity, where time and space are curved, transformation optics shows that the space for light can also be bent in an almost arbitrary way,” said Hammond.

Army researchers have paired with Purdue University, the University of Colorado, the University of Berkley, and Princeton University in a multi-university research initiative. Providing new capabilities to Soldiers in the battlefield is the motivation behind the research, said Hammond, and benefits from meta materials have an impact in both the short and long term.

“If you’re out on the battlefield and you see a cloud coming, or you suspect there might be an aerosol chemical or biological warfare being used against you, it’s very difficult to quickly detect what the material is,” said Hammond.

With the new meta materials being developed, however, the ability exists to see things smaller than the wavelength of light – something that has never been done before, according to Hammond. Utilizing meta materials in the creation of a new lens may allow Soldiers to be able to see pathogens and viruses that are currently impossible to detect with any visual device.

“So this would be an enormous – an enormous improvement, and not just on the battlefield, but it would allow us to make all kinds of materials, what we call nanomanufacturing,” said Hammond, “Which could go into electronic and optical devices that you’d use – from night vision goggles to distance sensors to other kinds of sensors.”
In the longer terms, the possibility for cloaking materials exists, which would provide “invisibility” by redirecting light around a cylindrical shape.

“One of the most exciting applications is an electromagnetic cloak that can bend light around itself, similar to the flow of water around a stone,” said Hammond. “Making invisible both the cloak and an object hidden inside.”

The research surrounding meta materials and creating tiny particles with unprecedented properties has met the “proof of principle” according to Hammond. What researchers and scientists will eventually accomplish, has yet to be seen, however, as that principle is developed and finds new applications, he said.

“This experiment was performed in 2006 and it was almost like a chain reaction,” said Hammond. “The field of transformation optics and meta materials and negative index materials exploded with this. But, as I say, the proof of principle has a long way to go before we can see that on the battlefield.”

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