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Klingons take note - nanotubes could allow spaceships to disappear


November 23, 2011

Scientists have discovered that objects coated with a forest of carbon nanotubes can be made to disappear against a dark background (Image: Alex Hopkinson)

Scientists have discovered that objects coated with a forest of carbon nanotubes can be made to disappear against a dark background (Image: Alex Hopkinson)

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Although Klingon-style disappearing spaceships may not be in our neighborhood any time soon, the technology that could allow a spaceship to vanish from sight may be here now. Scientists from the University of Michigan have successfully made a three-dimensional etched silicon image of a tank appear as a featureless black void, that completely blended in with the backdrop surrounding it. The secret: good ol' carbon nanotubes.

When we see an object, it's because it scatters and reflects light that strikes it - the more that an object obstructs incoming light, the more visible that object is. It turns out that a coating of low-density aligned carbon nanotubes, however, allows light to pass into it with little more resistance than that light experiences when moving through the air. This means little of the light is scattered or reflected, with most of it instead being essentially "absorbed."

It's no wonder that carbon nanotube carpeting is considered to be the world's darkest substance, and has found its way into NASA telescopes, among other applications where stray light needs to be kept to a minimum.

When the unadorned silicon tank relief was first illuminated with white light, all of its contours were plainly visible. After a forest of carbon nanotubes was grown on it, however, it and the silicon surface around it showed up as nothing but a uniform field of black.

While it wouldn't necessarily work in all situations, the technique could be used to allow objects - such as Klingon Birds of Prey, or more likely human military vehicles - to vanish against dark backgrounds.

The U Michigan research was recently described in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

As long as there was background glow from dust, gas and stars such you could amplify that to show you where the ship was--though it would only be a simple silhouette making it hard to see what kinds of weapons or equipment it was carrying. On an airplane, tank or ship it would sacrifice positional concealment for detail concealment. In some circumstances that would be an acceptable trade off.

Snake Oil Baron

Useful but not a cloak of invisibility.


Snake Oil Baron, wouldn\'t the background glow give away your position even without the nanotubes? And anyways, the point of camoflage (as I understand it) isn\'t to be invisible, but to be hard to see, with full invisibility being the unreachable holy grail.


If ET\'s existed and did those flyby\'s, then they probably have figured this out a long, long time ago. Nanotechnology ftw!

Renārs Grebežs

Why not just paint your spacecraft with matt black paint? Put on some white dots and voila! Space camouflage! Admittedly not radar invisible, but hey!


Nanotubes could be a component of a genetic bomb. A type of poison that can wipe out a species.

Stewart Mitchell

Pretty sure it was the Romulans which had the Cloaking Device. Just sayin\'...


Was definitely the Klingon\'s and they\'re Bird of prey ships. As well as the series it was demonstrated in the films \'Voyage home\' and \'Undiscovered country\'.

Wesley Baker

No need for an invisible tank when shells can be fired over the horizon at targets as was done by the US military when it invaded Iraq. The US tanks were invisible to the Iraqi tanks so the Iraqi\'s could not return fire and were obliterated by the radioactive uranium ammunition used by the US tanks (and planes). No need to mention that the thousands of tons of radioactive dust from the rounds fired has created record number of birth defects among the population with deformed babies and we are going to have hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying early from cancers over the next 20-30 years. But we got the oil which is all that seems to matter.

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