Newly Developed Technique in Optics May Allow for 'Invisibility'

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UC Berkeley researchers have brought Muggles one step closer to the status of witches and wizards with the development of optics technology that could result in a new kind of "invisibility cloak" - not to mention a computer that could run on light.

In a study published online Jan. 23 in Nature Nanotechnology, scientists detailed the discovery of GRIN plasmonics, a technique that utilizes highly efficient lenses - the Luneberg lens and the Eaton lens - to reroute light so that it creates the illusion of invisibility. The technique could also produce a light-powered computer, which would direct light onto a computer chip so that the light, rather than electrons, is its power source.

Invisibility "cloaks" have been developed before - by this team, even, in 2009 - using an artificial material that veils objects on a flat surface.

The original Luneberg and Eaton lenses were proposed more than 60 years ago, according to co-author of the paper Thomas Zentgraf, a postdoctoral researcher in UC Berkeley's department of mechanical engineering.

"A Luneburg lens is one that focuses light from all directions equally well, and an original Eaton lens is one that reflects light back," said Yongmin Liu, a postdoctoral researcher in the same department, in an e-mail. "Due to the rotational symmetry of the two lenses, they work for all incident angles."

Put together, these lenses form GRIN plasmonics, which itself is a combination of two emerging scientific fields: transformation optics, which is the control of the light's trajectory, and plasmonics, which describes confining light rays to the nanoscale.

Zentgraf explained that for the computer, this technology could pave the way for advances in speed and sophistication that would not be possible with electrons. Light, unlike electrons, does not interact with itself, meaning that circuits can be less complicated because such interactions do not have to be so rigorously avoided. In addition, the speed of light in a vacuum is the fastest rate that anything can go, so connection between circuits could be greatly improved.

Though invisibility "cloaks" have been developed before, GRIN plasmonics have the potential to take the concept to an even more sophisticated fruition. With the focusing and refractory power of the new lenses, Zentgraf said a material that bounces light effectively and makes object disappear is a very real possible application of the new methodology, though he added that certain materials not found in nature must be discovered first before such a material can be developed.

"Soon people who see Harry Potter in the movies with his invisibility cloak can know that it exists here too, even though we had to take a different path to make it," Zentgraf said.

Claire Perlman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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