It is not quite the magic material worn by Harry Potter, but scientists claim they have come a step closer to creating an invisibility cloak that can hide objects underneath it.
Using a non-stick material made from Teflon, the researchers have developed a way of disguising objects by smoothing out the distortion of light that might give away their location.
They said the ‘carpet’ can take on the appearance of the surface beneath and hide the presence of any item it lies on top of – effectively making it see through.
The scientists claim to have overcome a key flaw in previous attempts to create invisibility cloaks by preventing drops in brightness it reflects, which can often betray what lies beneath.
It could lead to new types of camouflage for buildings or even floor coverings that can be used to hide unsightly cables, for example.
Professor Boubacar Kanté, who led the study at the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, San Diego, said: ‘Invisibility may seem like magic at first, but its underlying concepts are familiar to everyone.
‘All it requires is a clever manipulation of our perception.
‘Full invisibility still seems beyond reach today, but it might become a reality in the near future thanks to recent progress in cloaking devices.’
The researchers designed their invisibility carpet to disguise any object sitting on top of a flat surface.
The whole system makes the object and the surface appear flat by mimicking the reflection of light from the surface beneath.
However, at this stage the idea is just a concept – they still have to build a working prototype of the carpet.
Instead, the researchers, whose work is published in the journal Progress In Electromagnetics Research, used computer aided design to simulate how it would behave.
They designed the cloak so that it was made from a thin matrix of Teflon in which small cylindrical ceramic particles were embedded, known as dielectrics.
Each dielectric particle had a different height depending on its position on the cloak.
Li-Yi Hsu, an electrical engineering student and lead author of the study, said: ‘By changing the height of each dielectric particle, we were able to control the reflection of light at each point on the cloak.
‘Our computer simulations show how our cloaking device would behave in reality.
‘We were able to demonstrate that a thin cloak designed with cylinder-shaped dielectric particles can help us significantly reduce the object’s shadow.’
The researchers claim their device could be considerably thinner than other cloaking devices that have been developed in the past, too.
They also said their cloak is ‘lossless’, which means the light reflected does not lose any intensity.
This can often betray the presence of an object beneath as an obvious looking ‘lump’ can still be seen even if its details cannot.
Professor Kanté said: ‘This cloaking device basically fools the observer into thinking that there’s a flat surface.
‘Imagine if you saw a sharp drop in brightness around the hidden object, it would be an obvious telltale.
‘This is what happens when you use a “lossy” cloaking device.’
‘What we have achieved in this study is a ‘lossless’ cloak. It won’t lose any intensity of the light that it reflects.’
Professor Kanté and his colleagues added that many other attempts to make invisibility cloaks have used metal particles, which absorb light.
The non-metallic particles used in this study do not absorb light and so allow them to fine tune the way lightwaves reflect off their cloak.
Mr Hsu said: ‘Previous cloaking studies needed many layers of materials to hide an object, the cloak ended up being much thicker than the size of the object being covered.
‘In this study, we show that we can use a thin single-layer sheet for cloaking.’
If built successfully, the invisibility carpet could be used to create more convincing camouflage material for buildings and vehicles.
The researchers also believe their invisibility carpet may find uses beyond simply hiding objects.
Professor Kanté added: ‘Using this technology, we can do more than make things invisible.
‘We can change the way light waves are being reflected at will and ultimately focus a large area of sunlight onto a solar power tower, like what a solar concentrator does.
‘We also expect this technology to have applications in optics, interior design and art.’