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Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Researchers’ Camouflage Technology Draws From Marine Life

By Jeannie Kever

A master of undersea disguise, this cuttlefish changes its color to camouflage with a coral reef.

It could be a fun party trick — put your cell phone down on a table and watch it fade into the woodwork — or part of a lifesaving technology used by industry or the military.

A researcher from the University of Houston and his collaborators developed a technology that allows a material to automatically read its environment and adapt to mimic its surroundings. The technology was described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering, said the optoelectronic camouflage system was inspired by the skins of cephalopods, a class of marine animals including octopuses, squid and cuttlefish, which can change coloration quickly, both for camouflage and as a form of warning.

Earlier camouflage systems didn’t automatically adapt, he said. “Our device sees color and matches it. It reads the environment using thermochromatic material.”

The prototype works in black and white, with shades of gray, but Yu said it could be designed to work in the full color spectrum and can be easily scaled up for manufacturing.

The flexible skin is comprised of ultrathin layers, combining semiconductor actuators, switching components and light sensors with inorganic reflectors and organic color-changing materials in such a way to allow autonomous matching to background coloration.

While the most valuable applications would be for defense or industry, Yu said consumer applications such as toys and wearable electronics also could offer a market for such a technology.

He worked with researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University on the project.


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