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A hairbrush-shaped device has been theoretically designed that would use bristles made out of nanowires to bend light around it, rendering the object invisible. The researchers who came up with the design say that it’s the first practical design for an “optical cloak” to work in the visible spectrum. They are now working on building an actual device based on their calculations.

Although still only a theoretical design, it is the first to show how a recently discovered cloaking effect could be made to work for all wavelengths of visible light, says Vladimir Shalaev, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, IN, who led the research effort.

“It sets out a road map for building these sorts of structures,” says John Pendry, a professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College London, U.K. Besides making it possible to turn things invisible, the work could lead to ways to create heat shields by bending infrared light around objects, he says. Pendry’s initial research led to last year’s creation of the first working cloaking device, which operated in the microwave range. (See “Cloaking Breakthrough.”) This latest work now shows a way to extend this into the visible-light range, says Pendry.

To become invisible, an object must do two things: it has to be able to bend light around itself, so that it casts no shadow, and it must produce no reflection. While naturally occurring materials are unable to do this, a new class of materials called metamaterials is now making it possible. (See “TR10: Invisible Revolution.”)

Bending light around an object requires a material to have a negative refractive index. The refractive index is a property that dictates how light passes through a medium; it’s the reason a stick will look bent when placed in water. If water had a negative refractive index, it would make the stick look as though it were bending back on itself.

Last year, Pendry demonstrated that it is theoretically possible to design structures of very thin conducting wires that could have an effect on the electric and magnetic fields of microwaves, causing them to bend in unnatural ways such as this. This theory was later backed up by experiments carried out by David Smith and David Schurig at Duke University, in Durham, NC.

But repeating the success for visual light seemed to present problems. For one thing, making the design used by Smith and Schurig work for visible light would require components just 40 nanometers in size.

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Credit: Birck Nanotechnology Center, Purdue University

Tagged: Computing, Materials, nanotechnology, light, nanowire, invisibility, microwaves

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