Discuss as:

An invisibility cloak for earthquakes? It's possible

Reuters / Mike Segar

The Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, New York, is seen in this April 6, 2010 file photo. An "invisibility cloak" proposed by researchers could protect such plants from earthquakes.

For several years, scientists have worked on real-world invisibility cloaks akin to the one that shields boy wizard Harry Potter from light waves. While that's neat-o and all, a research group in Potter's homeland thinks a similar trick can protect buildings from earthquakes.

The group, led by mathematician William Parnell at the University of Manchester, has shown that cloaking components or structures in pressurized rubber would make them invisible to the powerful waves produced during a temblor.

Instead of shaking the structure, the waves would pass around it, protecting the building and anything within it.

"We showed theoretically that pre-stressing a naturally available material — rubber — leads to a cloaking effect from a specific type of elastic wave," Parnell said in a news release.

This wave is called an antiplane wave, which is just one of the waves associated with an earthquake, Parnell added in a followup email exchange. "But I think it holds a great deal of promise for future research in many areas concerning vibration," he told me.

The research shows an ability to control the direction and speed of these waves. This ability could be useful in nano-applications such as in electronics, he noted.

In fact, that was what originally inspired the research, Parnell said.

"The point about earthquakes is that it is people's usual reference point for what an 'elastic wave' actually is," he said.

"But ... from a practical viewpoint, using this kind of theory to control sensitive electronic components — where you may not want to or be able to put a great big damping mechanism — could potentially be very useful."

In theory, the approach could be scaled up to protect buildings, or sensitive parts of buildings, from damaging earthquake waves.

Of course, if the waves bend around the protected buildings, the energy still has to go somewhere, making the shaking worse wherever it goes.

"But in many cases, that is what what we are after — i.e. we want to be able to control where the energy goes rather than be at the waves' mercy," Parnell said.

Findings are published in Proceedings of the Royal Academy A.

Updated: Feb. 17 at 11:15 am PT 

More on invisibility cloaks:


John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

 

 

The giant search-and-rescue training ground in College Station, Texas, is home to a destroyed strip mall, a mock-up movie theater and towering buildings all made to be torched in the name of emergency preparedness. Clint Arnett describes how Disaster City works.