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Latest Camouflage Material Inspired by Cuttlefish

Aug 18, 2014 07:31 PM EDT

Many octopus and cuttlefish have the remarkable ability to change the hue of their skin to better reflect their surroundings. Now soldiers may one day be able to pull off the same feat, blending into their environment no matter where they go.

Sure, it isn't the same seamless camouflage we see in the Predators' or even Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. However, octopuses have the astounding ability to expand and contract the pigment cells located throughout their body, changing color and texture to look like rocks, sand or coral in the area.

Snorkeling in Bora Bora, diving and fishing enthusiast SpearoBlog captured an excellent example of what some octopuses can do in a short video. BBC One's Richard Hammond took things a step further, asking a cuttlefish to blend in with a checkerboard pattern and even classic upholstery. Amazingly, the cuttlefish was at least partially up to the challenge.

Now, experts at the Rogers Research Group hope to recreate that amazing, natural ability in synthetic material.

"I think we've put together the key elements that are needed," John Rogers, who heads the materials research group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently told IEEE Spectrum.

According to Rogers, he and his team have developed a material comprised of stacked and very thin dye layers that are divided up into pixels. The dye is normally black, but becomes transparent when heated at a specific temperature spike. Beneath that dye is a layer of reflective silver that appears white to the naked eye, and below that is an array of heating diodes.

What is most key - a sheet of photodetectors - runs throughout the material.

According to study recently published in the journal PNAS, when light strikes a photodetector it sends a signal to a connected diode, which begins to heat up, essentially thinning the dye's duskiness. In this way, the pixels can match the pattern of light hues that they are exposed to.

The pixels change rapidly and adapt to new patterns easily, just like our friend the cuttlefish. However, with just being able to change from black to white, the "camouflage" sheet is far from being inconspicuous.

"It's nothing close to being ready to deploy, in a military setting or anything else," Rogers told BBC News. "It's really a beginning point, to focus on the engineering science around how you might create systems that have this type of function."

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