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Thermal Camouflage Jacket

UK company 'one step closer' to developing 'invisibility cloak'

By NICK GARCIA Published Sep 27, 2022 3:41 pm

Invisibility has been explored time and again in media, from the mind's eye of fantasy to the lens of science fiction. Bilbo Baggins can vanish through an evil ring, while Harry Potter has a magical cloak. James Bond and the Predator, meanwhile, respectively use a hi-tech car and suit to disappear.

For the longest time, invisibility has just been a fanciful idea that the hopeful human can only flirt with in movies and books. A British sports clothing brand, however, believes it's "one step closer" to translating the fictitious concept to reality.

Vollebak in a blog post said it's been working with the University of Manchester's National Graphene Institute for the past three years to develop a thermal camouflage jacket that can disappear in infrared.

It's the first computer-programmable jacket which has 42 graphene patches that, like pixels on screen, can be controlled individually.

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The patches, Vollebak noted, can be coded to emit a different level of thermal radiation, letting it blend into surroundings and appear invisible to infrared cameras.

"While the Thermal Camouflage Jacket only operates on the infrared spectrum today, by using graphene, it should ultimately be possible to build a version that also operates on the visible spectrum at the same time," Vollebak said.

Fundamental physical limitations

In 2016, researchers from the University of Austin in Texas found that there are fundamental physical limitations in rendering an object undetectable to radio waves, microwaves, infrared, and visible light. Larger objects, they said, also pose more limitations.

Their study, published in peer-reviewed journal Optica, cited as example a medium-size antenna which can be cloaked from radio waves, over relatively broad bandwidths for clearer communications. In contrast, it's "essentially impossible" to cloak the human body or a military tank from visible light waves.

“Even with active cloaks, Einstein’s theory of relativity fundamentally limits the ultimate performance for invisibility,” the study said.

Vollebak itself also acknowledged two "interconnected problems" that makes outright invisibility impossible in real life.

First, the current technology isn't enough to hide humans on the visible spectrum. Vollebak said they must also be hidden on the infrared spectrum, which is tricky since they're really bright on infrared cameras, radiating about 200 watts.

Second, hiding humans on the infrared spectrum needs something that's part clothing, part machine—an unprecedented concept. Electronic devices and fabric, Vollebak said, are "historically incompatible" because one is hard and the other is soft, posing a number of interdisciplinary challenges.

In any case, as English poet Robert Browning writes, a man's reach should exceed his grasp.

In 2019, Canadian company Hyperstealth Technology filed a patent for a "quantum stealth" material that can make objects disappear, though not entirely. Intended for military use, the paper-thin cloak-like technology bends light around a target, hiding infrared, ultraviolet, and thermal signals.

In 2020, Israel's Ministry of Defense and tech company Polaris Solutions unveiled a camouflage sheet that has thermal visual concealment material, which makes soldiers more difficult to see with a range of thermal cameras. Soldiers may wrap themselves with the foldable 500-gram sheet when on the move and join their sheets together to build a barrier that resembles a rock when they set up a position.

For Vollebak's creation, it's hoping to scale the technology up and scale the graphene pixels down "over the next decade."

"With enough patches and enough power, a person could simply blend into a forest," it said. "Or a plane could blend into a runway."

The thermal camouflage jacket remains a proof of concept and is not for sale.

"While the jacket is still in development–and we can’t make anyone disappear just yet–we wanted to share our progress. Because today’s prototype proves the viability of wearable thermal camouflage for the first time," Vollebak said.

Vollebak has since incorporated science and technology in its products, including a solar charged jacket that stores and re-emits light; a pair of weatherproof sweatpants that can withstand even fire; and "Mars gear" with anti-gravity pocket and vomit pocket for space travel.