Light-bending invisibility cloaks are on the horizon, and China wants to be the first to vanish in them. Image: Wikimedia
China really, really wants an invisibility cloak. Who doesn't? But few nations have China's unique combination of a booming economy, a thirst for scientific R&D, and a powerful central government. As such, the state has bankrolled more than 40 separate research efforts over the last three years, all aimed at developing technology that intends to quite literally render people and objects invisible.
Forty. That's how many so-called invisibility cloaks the state-approved South China Morning Post reports China is currently pursuing. It's certainly a lot of effort and resources to pour into a technology that's still more fantasy than feasible, but, given the US government's own support of similar "invisibility" tech, it's enough to get pundits and American newspapers to claim the two countries are locked in a "race." Sometimes even a "race to the finish line."
The finish line being, supposedly, an invisibility cloak that does what it does in comic books, or what the Chinese government describes as "full invisibility." Right now, the best invisibility cloaks we have can render the wearer undetectable only to radio or microwaves; some can bend and scatter light around them to make the wearer slightly less visible to onlookers. Those cloaks, which employ meta-materials made from synthetic textiles, have some serious problems—while they "cloak" a user from one wavelength, they can make them even more visible on another.
Improvements are being made, but we're a long ways off from anything that would seriously hide a person—or a piece of military equipment—from view in plain sight. Which is what China explicitly wants to do. Here, according to the Morning Post, are a few of the most promising "invisibility cloak" projects China is working on.
The Pet Cloaker
Less a cloak and more an "invisibility capsule," this stationary light-bending tech is apparently best suited for adorable domestic pets. It has already made a cat and some goldfish sort-of disappear:
A team led by Professor Chen Hongsheng at Zhejiang University released a video last month demonstrating a device that made fish invisible. The same technology also apparently made a cat "disappear". The device was made of a hexagonal array of glass-like panels, which obscure the object from view by bending light around it.
The Hypersonic Jet with "Full Invisibility" That Launches Nuclear Warheads "At Least 5X Faster" Than the Speed of Sound
NASA scramjet, soon to be cloaked by Chinese tech. Image: Wikimedia
Perhaps the polar opposite in invisibility cloak applications, we go from making domestic pets charmingly vanish to nuke-loaded hypersonic jets that will ideally have "full invisibility":
A team at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, for instance, was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China to develop "full invisibility" technology and material for hypersonic jets similar to NASA's X-43A scramjet. The hypersonic vehicle could be used to delivered nuclear warheads around the globe with speed at least five times faster than sound.
The Concealed Carrier: A Holster Than Makes Guns Invisible
China is apparently trying to build the TSA's worst nightmare. And here's one that the self-professed patriots at the NRA might find themselves conflicted over:
Professor Ma Yungui, an optical engineering specialist at Zhejiang University, said his team would soon announce their latest finding: a device that stops objects being detected by heat sensors or metal detectors.
Ma's device is as large as a matchbox, but it could be increased in size to allow weapons to pass through security checkpoints. Another potential application is to stop agents or troops moving at night being caught by infrared cameras.
Many of the other project leaders declined to speak with the Morning Post citing "sensitivity" issues. So apparently China has something more sensitive than an invisible hypersonic nuke-jet in the works.
A "cloaked" tank. Image: Youtube screenshot
The US, for its part, is bankrolling technology of the more mundane vision-scrambling variety. The military contractor BAE is prototyping tech that uses cameras to gather data around a vehicle's environment, and then camouflages said vehicle accordingly. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Texas think they've just made another breakthrough—a battery-powered "invisibility cloak." They say it's the first such cloaking device that doesn't rely on an external power source.
But given recent reports, it seems that China is much more interested in the tech, and much more willing to spend freely (and perhaps recklessly) to get. It might not exactly be a "race," but invisibility—or really, let's call it what it is, better camouflage—is certainly an area of supreme interest to both nations. And at this rate, China's going to have about forty times as many half-functioning invisibility cloaks than the US.
"It is challenging to get a research grant no matter what the subject is, but the government’s support on fundamental frontier research such as invisibility study is strong and increasing," Ma Yungui, the gun-cloaking professor, told the Post. "I think we have about a 40 per cent chance of making the world's first invisibility cloak."