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NMSU researcher developing stealth coatings for aircraft

Stealth aircraft are known for their radar-evading design, but that doesn't mean they can't be seen by the human eye.

Physicist Shay Curran, right, works with students in this NMSU lab. Curran is using nanotechnology techniques to develop new stealth coatings for aircraft. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

t, 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.

Curran and his collaborators at Wake Forest University and the University of Florida are developing high-tech coatings that will give new meaning to the term "stealth aircraft."

Take Curran's aptly named Agile Response Chameleon Coatings research project, for example. Its goal is to develop intelligent coatings that will enable aircraft to change colors to blend in with the background, making them harder for ground forces to see.

"We are working on photochromic and electrochromic cells that can switch colors like LEDs (light-emiting 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 color changes and blurry edges could "buy the pilot a couple of seconds," Curran said.

The researchers' stealthy innovations don't stop there. They also are working on a coating to thwart missiles that use infrared lock-on targeting systems. Another would shield pilots from electromagnetic interference, protecting against electronic attacks on systems and communications.

The "smart" stealth technology will operate on its own, sensing and responding to the aircraft's environment.

With the support of U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Curran and his collaborators will receive $1.5 million for their work from the just-passed 2005 Defense Appropriations Act.

"Dr. Curran is devising an innovative way to protect military aircraft," Bigaman said. "It's my hope that this technology can be used in the future in other homeland security capacities. I am pleased to have helped secure the funding for this important project."

The defense research is expected to be funded at $7.5 million over five years, with the possibility of expanding the funding to $15 million, Curran said.

Curran, a member of the physics faculty at NMSU, has been collaborating on the initiatives for about a year with David Carroll, director of the nanotechnology center at Wake Forest, and John Reynolds, a chemist at the University of Florida.

Although the Defense Department is interested in the 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 through NMSU's Arrowhead Center, 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. We actually build materials from the ground up, at the molecular level. You minimize failures this way."

The stealth coatings research "is just one initiative that's going on in nanotechnology" at New Mexico State, he added. "There is tremendous potential for economic development potential in it."