Press-Republican

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July 30, 2013

Invisible cloaks, other inventions might help military, doctors

WASHINGTON — For those sci-fi enthusiasts who couldn't make it to San Diego for Comic-Con, the White House had a solution last Friday: a Google+ Hangout webchat exploring the stuff superheroes are made of, including invisibility and super strength.

Uncool people would describe the latest installment of "We the Geeks," a public outreach project of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as simply a discussion of materials science. But we know better. We're talking invisible cloaks! Liquid armor! Touch-sensitive synthetic skin!

The panel of engineering and physics experts displayed, described and activated an array of inventions that could apply to military operations, surgery, even a high school musical (if, for example, you wanted stagehands to be invisible as they moved scenery).

"Materials science is what allows us to make something real right out of the comic books," explained Nate Ball, co-founder of Atlas Devices and inventor of the Ascender, which allows for "reverse rappelling" up buildings, Batman style. "Most of us are familiar with how Batman gets out of trouble," he said as he introduced the device.

Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, offered his own bit of drama by stabbing a swatch of Kevlar containing liquid armor with an ice pick to show how the material turns rigid quickly. Liquid armor, he explained, "transitions from a fluidlike state to a solid-light state under impact," allowing it to resist assaults from small, powerful objects.

"We've been stabbing this one for about five years," he explained as he jabbed away, to no avail.

Wagner said his group is working with a range of agencies and industries on applying the research: NASA may use it for spacesuits that could withstand a micro-meteorite traveling at 25,000 mph, while doctors and nurses could wear garb that could not be pricked by hypodermic needles.

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