Night Vision Contact Lenses: Army’s Next Bright Future

Although night-vision goggle technology is at its peak, wouldn’t it be great if you could ditch the bulky headgear and pop in a pair of contacts? The United States Army thinks so. As the Pentagon continues to build a faster, lighter, and stronger soldier prototype, new technology in the form of night vision contact lenses could provide superior night vision without requiring soldiers to wear bulky goggles.

Researchers at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering have created a super-thin infrared light sensor using graphene – an atom-thin material related to graphite. Graphene is a form of carbon that’s commonly found in No. 2 pencils and is capable of absorbing light and making dark images appear brighter. The American Physical Society calls graphene the “wonder material” of the future, due to the fact that it’s “a million times thinner than paper, stronger than diamond, and more conductive than copper.” Ordinarily, graphene absorbs only 2.3 percent of light, which is not enough to generate a visible image. But, when two layers of graphene are combined with an insulator, the signal is boosted dramatically. Not only can these sensors detect visible and ultraviolet light, but they can detect the full infrared spectrum as well.

Although the development of the lens has quite a ways to go before its ready for production, let alone mass production, the United States Army has already expressed interest in using this new type of technology in the battlefield. In fact, it’s believed that the Navy SEAL Team responsible for killing Osama Bin Laden in 2011 may have worn similar contact lenses during their mission.  Other military applications include use in thermal imaging cameras, aircraft turrets and missile detectors. The new technology is primarily being marketed to the army, but that doesn’t mean the applications are limited to the armed forces.

According to Ted Norris and Zhaouhui Zhong, developers of the technology, the application could have widespread use, including in smartphone cameras to make taking pictures in the dark easier, in car windshields to enhance nighttime driving, and in search and rescue robots to improve thermal imaging. In order to move forward with the project, Norris and Zhong will need commercial or governmental partners beyond the initial support that came from the National Science Foundation. Additionally, the researchers will need to increase the range of temperatures the contact lenses pick up on and the amount of light they’re sensitive to.  The duo are currently working on their first camera but will need to team up with commercial interests or rely on their own entrepreneurial efforts before the material can be moved from the lab and into fully functional contact lenses with real-world applications.

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