Wild Thermal Camouflage Jacket Could Be Key Part of an Invisibility Cloak

The ability to become completely invisible has long been regarded as science fiction. But on Monday, the UK-based clothing company Vollebak announced that it has developed a prototype in collaboration with scientists that may be able to bring us one step closer to an invisibility cloak, or at least a jacket.

 “Our fundamental mission is to make clothes for the next century,” Vollebak co-founder Steve Tidball said. “We’re really interested in what are the challenges human beings will face in the next century on this planet and other planets, and how we make clothes for them.”

The key idea behind the jacket is that the optical portion of an invisibility cloak—hiding an object from the human eye—is only one part of the puzzle. Such approaches may be easily defeated by thermal imaging, which registers the temperature of people and objects. Realizing this, Volleback decided to work with scientists to create a garment that could thermally camouflage the wearer.

In 2018, Vollebak started making jackets made out of graphene, a highly tunable material used in many electronics.  But graphene has other potential applications. In 2019, Tidball and his co-founder (and twin brother) Nick started working with Coskun Kocabas, a professor of 2D Device Materials at the University of Manchester who had co-authored a paper on the use of graphene for thermal camouflage.

Their collaboration is what yielded the thermal camouflage jacket. The coat consists of 42 “graphene patches,” which have hundreds of atom-thick layers of graphene. Gold and copper wires connect the patch to a microcomputer, which programs the patches to emit different levels of thermal radiation without actually increasing the temperature. The change in radiation can be used to make the wearer appear "invisible" by appearing hotter or colder to fit in with the surrounding environment.

“If you want to make something or someone invisible to an infrared camera, you effectively have to trick the camera,” Tidball explained. “You trick the camera by changing the amount of heat something is emitting. The amount of thermal radiation coming off that thing. We trick the camera by changing that heat by applying a voltage to graphene.”

These graphene patches are similar to those that compose some new experimental screens, just much bigger and on a jacket. Vollebak has even managed to use it to play games like Snake and Tetris, as demonstrated in a video posted on its YouTube channel.

Although there are potential implications for the military and satellites, Tidball explained that any real-world applications of the jacket likely would not happen for a long time. “You’re not gonna see it on the street or on a military jet tomorrow,” he said.

To Tidball, this experiment was a proof of concept and a pipe dream come true.

“This idea fell out of childish enthusiasm,” he added. “It wasn’t because I wanted to write a paper. It wasn’t because I wanted to take over the world with thermal camouflage. It was because we saw something cool and were like ‘I wonder what a cloak would look like.’ And we couldn’t build a cloak because it was too much material, so we made a jacket.’”


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