Octopus-Inspired Device Brings Star Trek “Cloaking” a Little Closer to Reality

I’m a big Star Trek geek and always figured the Federation got the short end of the stick in the Treaty of Algeron. They got the Neutral Zone, and the Romulans kept their cloaking tech and a promise that the Federation would not pursue the innovation. That’s why this news about using the biology of a blue-ringed octopus caught my eye.

Recently, at the University of California, Irvine, researchers have mimicked some of the camouflage capabilities of the blue-ringed octopus. These highly venomous cephalopods (Hapalochlaena lunulata) inhabit Australia’s southern coast in tidal pools, coral reefs, and tropical regions of the Pacific Ocean. When they are alarmed, they cover their bodies in iridescent blue rings with the flex of a muscle.

The team created a device that has dynamically adjustable fluorescent and spectroscopic properties, is easy to manufacture, and has the potential for scaling areas large enough to cover vehicles, billboards, and even buildings. They believe it has various uses in the military, medicine, robotics, and sustainable energy fields.

“We are fascinated by the mechanisms underpinning the blue-ringed octopus’ ability to rapidly switch its skin markings between hidden and exposed states,” said senior co-author Alon Gorodetsky, UCI professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “For this project, we worked to mimic the octopus’ natural abilities with devices from unique materials we synthesized in our laboratory, and the result is an octopus-inspired deception and signaling system that is straightforward to fabricate, functions for a long time when operated continuously, and can even repair itself when damaged.”

The device has a thin film of wrinkled blue rings surrounding brown circles sandwiched between a transparent proton-conducting electrode top layer and an underlying acrylic membrane with another electrode beneath it.

In lab tests, the bioinspired devices could change their appearance more than 500 times with little to no degradation in the electromagnetic spectrum’s ultraviolet, visible light, and near-infrared areas. They also autonomously self-repaired.

These capabilities enable the devices to disguise objects from detection or signal a target clandestinely. 

The team published their findings in Nature Communications.

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