The cloaked circle measures a mere 10 micrometers, but try to spot it next to an uncloaked circle.  (Source: UMD)
Scientists at the University of Maryland demonstrate the first working visible light cloaking device.

Cloaking devices and technology have long been the fodder of science fiction, but researchers at the University of Maryland's James Clark School of Engineering have created a material that seems to fit the bill – at least in 2D. The device uses the properties of plasmons in its functionality.

Plasmons are electron waves which are generated when light strikes a metallic surface under controlled conditions. Plasmonics is a relatively new field though it promises to provide many beneficial scientific achievements.

The cloak itself is quite small, a mere 10 micrometers in width (PDF). The structure of the device is a simple thin layer of acrylic plastic with a pattern of concentric, two-dimensional rings atop a gold film. The ring pattern creates a negative refraction effect on visible light striking it, bending the plasmons around the object. While the light appears to have passed straight through the material, it has in fact gone around it.

Far from a usable cloaking system, the device only functions under specialized conditions and only in two dimensions. It is also not perfect invisibility as it only works on a limited range of the visual spectrum and suffers energy loss in the gold film. Three dimensional use of the material would be difficult because visible light would need to be controlled both magnetically and electronically.

Of a more practical purpose, the team has also used the unique properties of plasmons to develop a superlens microscopy technology which could augment existing conventional microscopes. The light bending techniques could allow a real view into nanoscale objects like DNA, viruses and proteins. The group believes they can still improve the superlens technology, bringing the resolution to an impressive 10 nanometers.

Plasmons could one day be employed in a variety of technology due to their unique properties. Since plasmons have very short wavelengths, they can be controlled with impressively small guide structures, much smaller than systems currently in use. As the waves are generated at optical frequencies, they could be used to carry impressive amounts of data in future computing systems.

Not surprisingly, the research has garnered attention from not only the scientific community, but government agencies and industries. One can only dream of the possible applications the military could have in mind for such a technology, less long advances that could be made on the optical computing frontier.

"It seems as though my state-funded math degree has failed me. Let the lashings commence." -- DailyTech Editor-in-Chief Kristopher Kubicki

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