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Royal Society funding brings invisibility cloak a step closer

20 August 2009

Harry Potter's invisibility cloak could potentially become a reality thanks to over £100,000 funding from The Royal Society. Professor Ulf Leonhardt from the University of St Andrews has received the funding to develop his work on broadband invisibility and ultimately create the blueprint for a practical cloaking device.

The idea of making invisibility a reality has been around for a while and prototype cloaking devices have even been built. However, the methods scientists have used to date to create invisibility have only been effective with certain colours of light. Professor Leonhardt has been working on a new theoretical idea that would make invisibility much more practical.

Leonhardt has based his work on Einstein's theory of curved space. In curved space, light may propagate along closed loops or avoid some regions altogether. Most transparent materials act as if they would curve the geometry of light for example light focused by a lens, refracted in a water droplet, or bent in a mirage perceives space as being curved. As curved space naturally bends light, cloaking is a lot easier there, and can occur for all colours of light, whereas in the previous methods space is flat and cloaking monochromatic.

This new theory will use specially designed optical metamaterials - artificial materials engineered to provide electromagnetic properties to curve space around the object that is being made invisible.

Should Leonhardt be able to make the theory a reality, the applications are endless - Star Trek's Starship Enterprise's invisibility shield could move from the realm of sci-fi to the real world. The research may also produce new ideas for optical devices that have not been possible before, such as perfect retroreflectors ( e.g. cats eyes) for increased visibility and improved microscopes and lenses.

Commenting on his work and the funding received, Professor Ulf Leonhardt said:

"New technologies are created by imagination, by seeing things in a different way. In my research, I invent invisibility devices and perfect lenses using an unorthodox picture for the effect optical materials have on light. Materials like glass or water seem to distort the perception of space. In fact, they create the illusion that space is curved.

Given that, I exploit some of the unusual features of curved space for creating novel optical devices that have not been thought possible before. I am very happy to have received a Theo Murphy Blue Skies Award that will allow me to do imaginative research in optics."

The research is being funded as part of the Theo Murphy Blue Skies Awards  for research in the fields of science, technology and engineering. Six awards have been made and research projects include a vaccine for malaria, new methods for sequencing the human genome, reducing drug resistance by design, accessing the chemistry and physical variability of the ocean bottom boundary layer and the development of new kinds of detectors for measuring isotopes.