UCI Researchers Work Towards Active Camouflage

Researchers at UCI have gotten one small step closer to a Marvel-like world of shapeshifters, as Dr. Alon A. Gorodetsky and his team of colleagues and graduate students in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science have developed a special protein found in squid that allows them to camouflage themselves.

The protein, reflectin, is found in the skin of cephalopods, something Dr. Gorodetsky discovered when he attended a seminar by scientist Roger Hanlon back in Oct. 2011. Dr. Gorodetsky was intrigued and decided to conduct further research back at UCI. It was after doing a literature search that he discovered that reflectin could be used as a material, inspiring him to form a team to begin producing it in labs.

“We began engineering E. Coli to express buckets and buckets of this,” Dr. Gorodetsky explained. “We literally wanted to paint the walls with it.”

After having the bacteria do most of the legwork in producing the protein, Dr. Gorodetsky and his team of researchers and graduate students practiced coating reflectin onto surfaces, eventually producing films they could use to make other devices. They then studied the protein’s properties, both for its optical and electrical functions.

Currently, they’re looking for ways to integrate reflectin into clothing — it was just recently at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Denver that the team presented their work, likening their vision to the shapeshifting abilities of the fictional X-Men character Mystique. They’ve also developed invisibility stickers that soldiers can wear  —  the reflectin helps match infrared reflectance of one’s background to help one blend in.

“It’s in the very early stages, but it’s the first step in the right direction to integrate this protein into something people can use,” said Dr. Gorodetsky.

Eventually, the team hopes to produce inexpensive clothing accessible to all civilians. Several industrial collaborators have already expressed interest in helping to produce adaptive clothing.

Dr. Gorodetsky credits two of his graduate students, Long Phan and David Ordinario, for being fearless in their curiosity and for their creativity in searching for new ways to integrate reflectin into everyday life.

“The dream would be for us to create an infrared shape-shifter,” said Dr. Gorodetsky. “That’s a borderline insane dream, but for now we’re working towards something along the lines of a shirt that can change from formal wear to a t-shirt to something else, and back again.”

The team is hoping for more renewable energy applications to work with the infrared in the next three years.