Scientists on the mainland say they are increasingly confident of developing the world’s first practical invisibility cloak, using technology to hide objects from view and make them “disappear’’.
At least 40 research teams have been funded by the central government over the past three years to develop the idea, which in recent decades has largely been the stuff of science fiction and fantasy novels like the Harry Potter series than science fact.
The technology would have obvious military uses, such as developing stealth aircraft, but Beijing believes the research could lead to wider technological breakthroughs with broader uses, scientists involved in the research said.
The teams involved include researchers at Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The main approaches are developing materials that guide light away from an object; creating electromagnetic fields to bend light away from what you are trying to hide, plus copying nature to make high-tech camouflage materials.
A team led by professor Chen Hongsheng at Zhejiang University released a video earlier this month demonstrating a device that made fish invisible. The same technology also made a cat “disappear’’.
The device was made of a hexagonal array of glass panels, which bends light around the object, making it disappear from view.
Other teams on the mainland have made similar breakthroughs during their research. Professor Ma Yungui, an optical engineering scientist who also works at Zhejiang University, said his team would soon announce their latest finding: a device that stops objects being detected by heat sensors or metal detectors.
Ma’s device is as large as a match box, but it could be increased in size to allow weapons to pass through security checkpoints. Another potential application is to stop special agents or troops moving at night being caught by infrared cameras.
“Many people have asked me if the technology can be applied on fighter jets so they can get heat-seeking missiles off the tail. Well, we may work on that,’’ he said.
Ma said a useable, practical invisibility cloak might still be decades away as it needed super-materials that could not be produced with current technology, but the central government was still pouring funds into research because the theoretical knowledge gained could produce so many potential spinoffs.
Ma said his team had received funding from the government to develop an invisibility cloak and their device was a byproduct of their research.
“I went to an international forum on invisibility study in Paris last year and found that at least a third of the researchers came from mainland China,” Ma said. “It seems easy to get funds these days. You ask for it, you get it.’’
Ma said China had caught up with the traditional leaders in the field, such as the United States and Europe.
“I think we have about a 40 per cent chance of making the world’s first invisibility cloak,’’ he said.
Part of his confidence was because so many of the world’s leading experts on invisibility technology were Chinese and also there was extensive collaboration within the Chinese scientific community, he said.
Professor Wang Guoping who is also researching into the invisibility cloak, agreed Chinese scientists now have the edge in developing the technology.
Mainland scientists were not as good at proposing groundbreaking theories, but were excellent at working hard on the laboratory research to refine the technology and the materials needed, he said.
“The competition is no longer about the theory, but the materials. Chinese scientists have a natural advantage there,’’ Wang said.
“Chinese scientists are gaining the lead not only on the invisibility cloak, but in many fields of advanced research,’’ he said.