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July 27, 2013

Invisible cloaks, other inventions might help military, doctors

WASHINGTON — For those sci-fi enthusiasts who couldn't make it to San Diego for Comic-Con, the White House had a solution last Friday: a Google+ Hangout webchat exploring the stuff superheroes are made of, including invisibility and super strength.

Uncool people would describe the latest installment of "We the Geeks," a public outreach project of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as simply a discussion of materials science. But we know better. We're talking invisible cloaks! Liquid armor! Touch-sensitive synthetic skin!

The panel of engineering and physics experts displayed, described and activated an array of inventions that could apply to military operations, surgery, even a high school musical (if, for example, you wanted stagehands to be invisible as they moved scenery).

"Materials science is what allows us to make something real right out of the comic books," explained Nate Ball, co-founder of Atlas Devices and inventor of the Ascender, which allows for "reverse rappelling" up buildings, Batman style. "Most of us are familiar with how Batman gets out of trouble," he said as he introduced the device.

Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, offered his own bit of drama by stabbing a swatch of Kevlar containing liquid armor with an ice pick to show how the material turns rigid quickly. Liquid armor, he explained, "transitions from a fluidlike state to a solid-light state under impact," allowing it to resist assaults from small, powerful objects.

"We've been stabbing this one for about five years," he explained as he jabbed away, to no avail.

Wagner said his group is working with a range of agencies and industries on applying the research: NASA may use it for spacesuits that could withstand a micro-meteorite traveling at 25,000 mph, while doctors and nurses could wear garb that could not be pricked by hypodermic needles.

Other scientists offered their own superhero devices and powers: Duke University engineering graduate student Nathan Landy unveiled an invisibility cloak, while Stanford University chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao discussed the latest discoveries on self-healing and touch-sensitive synthetic skin.

Landy has worked with his colleagues to make a cloak (it's actually a diamond-shaped, solid structure) out of metamaterials, artificially structured composites that respond in a certain way to electromagnetic waves. Long story short, you can put objects such as a metal cylinder (which normally is very easy to detect because it scatters light) inside the cloak, and it's undetectable by radar.

"This demonstration shows that cloaks aren't some sort of mystical entity," Landy explained in a phone interview. "They're real, in a very genuine sense."

The device has practical applications in both the defense and telecommunications worlds. "It's no secret that there's a lot of military interest in this," he said.

This technology might allow devices to communicate better with each other, even when objects such as telephone poles get in the way; the cloaking would make such obstacles "disappear," allowing radio waves to transmit smoothly.

At the end of the hangout, the experts offered their own superpower wishes.

James Kakalios, a professor in the University of Minnesota's School of Physics and Astronomy and author of "The Physics of Superheroes," said he wanted the power of super-speed. "Not just being able to avoid rush hour traffic . . . but just to be able to take care of all the things we need to in a given day," he said.

Landy said he didn't actually want to be invisible: "I think it would cause more problems than it would solve."

And Ball? He opted instead to praise scientific research as well as Batman and Iron Man, both of them heroes because of the gear they deploy rather than powers they command. He then activated his rappelling device in signing off.

If you want to educate yourself on all of this, videos of the discussions are available at www.whitehouse.gov/we-the-geeks.

Take that, Comic-Con.

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