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Stealth coatings for aircraft

The goal of the project is to develop intelligent coatings that will enable aircraft to change colours to blend in with the background.

THOUGH THEY are known for their radar-evading design it does not mean that stealth aircraft cannot be seen by the human eye. "In fact, some of these aircraft are made to fly relatively slowly and this makes them quite vulnerable to ground fire," said physicist Seamus `Shay' Curran, head of the nanotechnology program at New Mexico State University.

New meaning

High-tech coatings that will give new meaning to the term `stealth aircraft' are being developed by Curran and his collaborators at Wake Forest University and the University of Florida. The goal of Curran's aptly named Agile Response Chameleon Coatings research project, for example, is to develop intelligent coatings that will enable aircraft to change colours to blend in with the background, making them harder for ground forces to see.

Bending light

"We are working on photochromic and electrochromic cells that can switch colours like LEDs (light-emitting diodes)," Curran said. "We're going to build the cells first and then the computer system to control the cells. We're also developing a nonlinear coating that would bend light a certain way,'' he continued. "This is playing with luminescence and fluorescence. If you can blur the edges, it makes it very difficult to focus on an object. It gives it sort of a shimmer, like you see sometimes with distant objects on a hot day. Chameleon-like colour changes and blurry edges could buy the pilot a couple of seconds," Curran said.

Thwarting missiles

The researchers' stealthy innovations do not stop there. A coating to thwart missiles that use infrared lock-on targeting systems is another project they are working on. Another would protect against electronic attacks on systems and communications by shielding pilots from electromagnetic interference. Operating on its own, the `smart' stealth technology will sense and respond to the aircraft's environment.

Besides military applications, Curran expects the new materials will have numerous commercial applications. ``We are trying to develop better structural materials, better composites — more lightweight, robust and durable,'' he said.

``A lot of the coatings we are developing I hope we can commercialize , like anti-static coatings, thermal coatings and electromagnetic interference shields.'' The key to creating composites with such remarkable properties is nanotechnology, the ability to build materials an atom at a time, Curran said. ``The real essence of it is control at the nanoscale."

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