Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stealth paint

A German inventor has developed a paint called AR 1 that can hide a vehicle from radar, and most importantly, "all militarily relevant frequencies.

After spending thousands and thousands hours in the laboratory, he finally mixed the paint he was looking for. He sent a can of it to Helmut Essen, a radiation physicist who runs the radar technology department at the Research Establishment for Applied Science (FGAN) near Bonn. Essen examined Nickel's paint and was surprised to learn that it works "and for all militarily relevant frequencies," he says.

When a house, a ship or a car that would usually light up on a radar screen is coated with AR 1, it disappears almost completely into the darkness. Essen hasn't been able to figure out why this happens. It might be because the paint is a type of Jaumann absorber, which reflects incoming radar waves in such a way that they cancel each other out. Or it could have something to do with microscopically minute magnetic particles that absorb the radiation's energy.

But Essen still isn't sure what exactly makes the paint work. Essen considers the fact that Nickel concocted the paint out in the desert -- with almost no research resources at his disposal -- "almost unbelievable." And yet, each sample Essen has received from Nickel over the years works a little better than the last one. "How on earth does the man do it?" Essen asks.

Essen is now familiar with the desert inventor's full story. Nickel started looking into radio shield paints during the Cold War. A Yugoslavian friend working at his country's consulate in West Berlin introduced Nickel to weapons experts, including an American living in a villa in West Berlin. In the early 1980s, the American invited Nickel to visit a restricted military zone to demonstrate an aluminum ball coated with one of his first paints. The results were disastrous. "Take it easy," the American said. "You've only lost one battle, not the entire war." Nickel kept on trying.

At a certain point, people interested in Nickel's special paint started contacting him. In early 2002, he received a visit from an Iraqi who told him that the government of then-dictator Saddam Hussein was looking for ways to hide its fortifications from US air patrols. "We send you our compliments," a letter from Baghdad dated March 20, 2002 reads, "and invite you to visit our production facilities." According to Nickel, the Iraqis offered him $18 million (€11.2 million), half of it in oil options. "But the whole thing got too hot for me when they booked us rooms in the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad," Nickel says.

In 2007, the Chinese started knocking on his door. Representatives of a Shanghai-based company called G.S. Holding told Nickel that they were "very interested in your product" and promised him profits in the "huge Chinese market." He was flattered by the offer, Nickel says, and he still plans to meet with a delegation from the Chinese Ministry of National Defense in May. In the end, however, he prefers "reasonable people from my own country."

The Germans have known about Nickel's paint for a long time. In 2004, Nickel sent the first sample of his paint to FGAN, whose main client is the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces. The effectiveness of AR 1, experts at the FGAN told him, went "well beyond the level we have been able to achieve with similar paint samples." In 2005, the FGAN had a Unimog -- an off-road vehicle manufactured by Mercedes -- coated with Nickel's paint, and then it presented the shielded vehicle to defense experts. Delegations from Singapore, the UAE and the Netherlands came to see the vehicle.

Radar camouflaging "was a huge issue during the Cold War. But, nowadays, it's more of something that's nice to have", said Essen. Somehow the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are more interested in making vehicles highly visible rather than radar camouflaged.

In all likelihood, Nickel's invention is probably more valuable for civilian use. Pilots and air traffic controllers worldwide complain about the interfering effect that airport buildings have on the radar screen. If they were coated with Nickel's paint, they could be made largely invisible. "I've been trying to tell him for a long time," Essen says, "that he's more likely to get rich in civilian aviation than with the military."

Source Spiegel

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