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Instead of using invisibility cloaks to conceal something from detection, "illusion coatings" hides them by making them look like something else.

These illusion coatings could benefit soldiers, or spies hide antennas and sensors from remote inspection while still allowing the devices to scan the external world.

Invisibility cloaks once thought of only as "Star Trek" science fiction or "Harry Potter" fiction work by smoothly controlling light waves around objects, so the waves ripple along their original paths as if nothing were there to block them. Cloaking devices that struggle against other kinds of waves are possible, such as the sonar's acoustic waves.

But one obstacle with invisibility cloaks is that they isolate whatever they contain. This means the act of cloaking would prevent an implanted antenna or sensor from communicating with the outside world.

Instead, scientists have now revealed what they call illusion coatings — flexible, lightweight materials that can make whatever they cover appear to be something other than what they are.

The investigators started with thin sheets of a composite material formed of glass fibers and Teflon. These were covered with designs of copper stripes associated with the composite material to scatter radio waves in a very specific way. The stripes are only 35 microns deep and about 300 to 500 microns wide. (For comparison, the average width of a human hair is 100 microns.)

Next, the researchers took whatever they want cloaked and surrounded it with a separator — either air or foam. Finally, they applied the coating. Depending on the copper patterns used, the researchers could make a copper antenna or sensor look like silicon or Teflon when radio waves scanned it. They could also make a Teflon cylinder look like a metal object.

These illusion coatings will one day help protect antennas and sensors from discovery by hostile powers. The coatings they invented can still allow for the electromagnetic communication between the coated object and the outside world. A sensor will be electromagnetically isolated or hidden while it still maintains its sensing functionality.

Illusion coatings may also help protect any equipment from stray or intentional electromagnetic interference. For instance, they will help facilitate multiple-antenna arrays. Each antenna will not be affected by the other antennas, even when placed in very close vicinity.

Illusion coatings could be used for tasks other than hiding. For example, they could help current radio signals to better telecommunications.

While these illusion coatings currently exclusively work for radio frequencies, the researchers investigate those that work against infrared and visible light wavelengths.

The scientists will present their work in January at a meeting of the Royal Society in Chicheley, England. The findings were detailed online on October 9 in the journal Advanced Functional Materials. Want to learn more about protective coatings? Give ArmorThane a call today!

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