James Ihaka

James Ihaka is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

Boffins work on invisibility cloak

Best and brightest researching on 86 projects get $54m to explore big ideas.

A 'cloaking device' that makes things invisible, the effect of a depleting ozone layer on the prevailing wind and just how birds tell the time before migrating. Photo / AP
A 'cloaking device' that makes things invisible, the effect of a depleting ozone layer on the prevailing wind and just how birds tell the time before migrating. Photo / AP

A "cloaking device" that makes things invisible, the effect of a depleting ozone layer on the prevailing wind and just how birds tell the time before migrating.

These are some of the ideas that the country's brightest minds are investigating with the help of millions of dollars in research grants from the Marsden Fund.

A total of 86 research projects have been allocated $54.6 million in this year's Marsden Fund grants.

The fund, which supports projects in the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, social sciences and the humanities, is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Government and is regarded as a hallmark of excellence, allowing the country's best researchers to explore their ideas.

Among the successful recipients is Otago University's Dr Robert Thompson, who received a $345,000 Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant.

His research involves the mathematics underpinning transformation optics - a new approach to the design of optical devices - that is making invisibility a reality.

Dr Thompson began working with Duke University scientists in 2009, three years after they built the world's first cloaking device in 2006.

He said there were two aspects to ongoing research: development of new meta-materials, and development of the mathematical theory.

He is working on developing better equations that engineers will be able to use to design and build better cloaking devices.

"Those guys work on the construction of these things and I work on the mathematical aspects of this because it's quite a difficult problem," he said.

"You don't have a naturally occurring thing that would work as a cloaking device so, in order to build it, you need some mathematics that tells you what you need to do - that's what I work on."

Scientists say the potential for the technology and meta-materials is tremendous with improved range for wireless devices, ultra-high-capacity storage devices, lenses with no blurring effect and even cloaked military vehicles and outposts.

Marsden Fund Council chairwoman Professor Juliet Gerrard said she was "extremely impressed" with the quality of the applicants and their proposals.

She said many of the ideas were high risk but potentially very high gain.

"In the long term, we expect some of these projects to make a big difference to New Zealand, in terms of economic growth, social issues and a wider understanding of who we are as New Zealanders."

Applications to the Marsden Fund are competitive, with 1113 preliminary proposals received.

Of those, 229 were asked to submit a full proposal and just 86 received funding - a success rate of 7.7 per cent. All the funded proposals are for three years.

More than a third of the proposals funded are Marsden Fast-Starts, designed to support outstanding researchers early in their careers in the first seven years after their PhD.

The Fast-Start grants are intended to help young researchers establish themselves within New Zealand and are expected to have long-term benefits for the range of capabilities, skills and knowledge in the country.

From ozone hole study to a Kiwi's bread and 'butta'

* Investigating the role of ozone in New Zealand and Southern Hemisphere climate change

Researcher: Dr Olaf Morgenstern, Niwa Lauder.
Funding: $955,000 for 3 years.

If you thought the blusterly westerlies had become more frequent in the last few years, you would be right.

Both ozone depletion and greenhouse gas increases have influenced these winds, speeding them up and drawing them closer to the South Pole. But Niwa's Dr Olaf Morgenstern believes the current trend may reduce - or even reverse - if the ozone hole recovers. He is building a new-generation climate model which will take account of ozone chemistry, the circulation of the atmosphere and oceans, and New Zealand's topography and land-sea contrasts and could help to accurately predict the local climate through the 21st century.

* The genetics and epigenetics of bird migration timing

Researchers: Dr Phil Battley, Institute of Natural Resources and Dr Andrew Fidler, the Cawthron Institute.
Funding: $920,000 for 3 years.

Bar-tailed godwits leave on their 18,000km migration to Alaska during the same 30-day period each year with some leaving during the same week, or even on the same day, each year to ensure that they arrive on the breeding grounds in time to find a mate and raise their chicks. So how do they know when to leave? Many birds and other animals respond to changes in day length (photoperiod), but it is not known how particular responses to photoperiod drive individual behavioural differences.

Research has implications for understanding the limits of species' potential to adapt to climate change.

* A scaling law for a renewable energy resource: Is Giga-Watt output from tidal turbine farms realistic?

Researcher: Dr Ross Vennell, University of Otago.
Funding: $940,000 for 3 years.

Scaling up production from renewable energy sources is one way the Government may meet its target of 90 per cent electricity generation from such places by 2025.

But while more turbines at a wind farm produces more power, this is not the case with large tidal turbine farms because power extraction slows the flow speed along the entire channel.

The research will develop computer models which will improve the understanding of how much power could be generated by channels such as the Kaipara Harbour and Cook Strait.

* Saving energy vs making yourself understood during speech production

Researcher: Dr Donald Derrick, University of Canterbury.
Funding: $345,000 for 3 years.

New Zealanders apparently say "butta" and not "butter" when speaking, making the local dialect ideal for an academic examining the tradeoff between speaking clearly and efficiently.

Experiments will analyse the effect changes in speech rate have on tongue motion, energy usage and speech perception.

The research will lead to better speech recognition systems - which could come in handy for people dialling large telecommunication companies only to get that voice saying "I can recognise certain words and phrases" closely followed by "I'm sorry, I don't understand".

Seeing things

Can you make something invisible?
Not completely, not yet. There is camouflage, but that's blending into a background and not invisibility. But research has suggested there are ways of bending light around an object so the object becomes 'hidden'.

Really? How does that work?
Images reach us via light waves, just as noise reaches us via sound waves. Theoretically, if you channel these waves around an object, you can hide it from view or sound.

How is this achieved ?
The behaviour of light as it strikes natural material depends on two parameters: magnetic permeability and the electric permittivity. These parameters are constants in natural objects. By using materials called "metamaterials", scientists hope to control and change the parameters.

What are metamaterials ?
A form of nano-technology, which works at the molecular level. Duke University developed the most effective to date, in 2006, and bent microwaves around an object. However, as humans don't see in the microwave spectrum, the science of hiding things from us is still very much in the theoretical stage.

So we're not quite there?
No. Inventors hope that with further research, and much trial and error, such materials can be refined to affect light in the visible spectrum.

So what are the possibilities for this technology ?
Literally hiding things in plain sight - the possibilities are endless.

- NZ Herald

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