In one University of Illinois lab, invisibility is a matter of now you hear it, now you don’t.
Led by mechanical science and engineering professor Nicholas Fang, Illinois researchers have demonstrated an acoustic cloak, a technology that renders underwater objects invisible to sonar and other ultrasound waves.
“We are not talking about science fiction. We are talking about controlling sound waves by bending and twisting them in a designer space,” said Fang, who also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. “This is certainly not some trick Harry Potter is playing with.”
While materials that can wrap sound around an object rather than reflecting or absorbing it have been theoretically possible for a few years, realization of the concept has been a challenge. In a paper accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters, Fang’s team describe their working prototype, capable of hiding an object from a broad range of sound waves.
The cloak is made of metamaterial, a class of artificial materials that have enhanced properties as a result of their carefully engineered structure. Fang’s team designed a two-dimensional cylindrical cloak made of 16 concentric rings of acoustic circuits structured to guide sound waves. Each ring has a different index of refraction, meaning that sound waves vary their speed from the outer rings to the inner ones.
“Basically what you are looking at is an array of cavities that are connected by channels. The sound is going to propagate inside those channels, and the cavities are designed to slow the waves down,” Fang said. “As you go further inside the rings, sound waves gain faster and faster speed.”
Since speeding up requires energy, the sound waves instead propagate around the cloak’s outer rings, guided by the channels in the circuits. The specially structured acoustic circuits actually bend the sound waves to wrap them around the outer layers of the cloak.
The researchers tested their cloak’s ability to hide a steel cylinder. They submerged the cylinder in a tank with an ultrasound source on one side and a sensor array on the other, then placed the cylinder inside the cloak and watched it disappear from their sonar.