Tuesday, 05 Dec 2023

What does a 100,000 invisibility cloak look like? Funny you should ask

What does a 100,000 invisibility cloak look like? Funny you should ask

What does a 100,000 invisibility cloak look like? Funny you should ask

Harry Potter's invisibility cloak arrived in a parcel for Christmas, with a note from Dumbledore: "Use it well." Ron Weasley's reaction was, as you might expect, to be insanely jealous. Who, after all, hasn't dreamed of having the power of passing through the world without being seen?

Well, there might just be some good news for Ron and the rest of us. A pair of twins have created something very like an invisibility cloak. No, not the Weasley twins, but real-life brothers Steve and Nick Tidball. They call it the thermal camouflage jacket, and I've come to see it and Steve, in the offices of the brothers' futuristic clothing company, hidden away behind a Travelodge in King's Cross, London.

Their company is called Vollebak - which means something like "go all out" in Flemish - and their offices are how you would want a futuristic clothing company's to be: ping-pong table, piano (both brothers play), a bunch of people sitting around a honeycomb table looking into their laptops. Half of them are a team from a specialist manufacturer in Italy.

Steve shows me into a glassed-off meeting area and puts the jacket on. There is only one, and it's too small for me to try. It is white with dark grey vertical strips. Each one consists of 100 layers of graphene, the world's most conductive material, and one of the most expensive. The jacket cost roughly £100,000 to make, he says - there is a load of gold wiring in there as well. It has taken three years to get to this stage, working with Prof Coskun Kocabas (basically Prof Graphene) at the University of Manchester's National Graphene Institute.

OK, so I don't want to spoil the party or anything, but now I'm thinking less about Harry Potter and more about The Emperor's New Clothes, specifically the kid who pipes up. I need to be that kid: erm, Steve, I can see you and the jacket (actually it's like the opposite of The Emperor's New Clothes). You're right here, in front of me, not invisible.

"I am very far from invisible," he admits, before explaining that this is only the first step. The graphene patches can be programmed to mimic the radiation levels of their surroundings, at least in part of the spectrum, so that they effectively disappear in infrared light. "We wanted to demonstrate that in order to build an invisibility cloak you have to mix something soft - clothing - with something hard - optical devices. This is the first step in bringing hard and soft things together."

The key thing is that the graphene patches can be programmed individually, to emit different levels of thermal radiation, to blend in with the surroundings. The next step is to scale down the size of the patches, so that an object can blend into more complex surroundings - a person in a forest, say. Again, it's only in infrared light, but I'm thinking that if you don't want to be detected by one of those thermal imaging cameras police helicopters have, then a thermal camouflage jacket would be very handy.

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