Under the Sea: Squids Inspire Creation of Dynamic, Color-Changing Camouflage

squidMany of the latest and greatest developments in camouflage clothing and technology were inspired by a peculiar, 60-million-year-old creature: the squid.

A lab at UC Irvine is taking biomimicry to the next level. Chemical engineering professor Alon Gorodetsky and his team of researchers used bacteria to create synthetic squid protein. The lab is attempting to recreate a protein known as Reflectin — which is exactly what allows squid to manipulate light in order to change their color and camouflage themselves — in hopes that it could one day be used by the military for camouflage.

Gorodetsky and his team are attempting to use the purified protein in materials, such as tape and stickers, in an effort to take advantage of the natural camouflage properties outside the ocean. His work is a small part of a much larger movement towards dynamic or “smart” camouflage — camouflage that can adapt or respond to external stimuli.

Early test versions of Reflectin-coated stickers appear to change color and reflect light in several unique ways. A strip of shiny, coated material with a metallic blue color will appear red when placed on a piece of red paper. Similarly, the coating can take on colors across the spectrum. In fact, it’s even able to reflect infrared light, an ability which most things, whether man-made or natural, don’t have.

This animal-inspired researched has piqued the interest of both the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy (DOE). A squid-protein coating used for military camouflage coating could help guard soldiers against thermal or infrared detection, and could be used to help created more distinct patterns to help soldiers recognize each other in the dark, which in turn will help prevent friendly fire.

Outside of its camouflaging abilities, Reflectin could also be used in clothing to help regulate body temperature, such as cooling down after a workout or staying warm in cold environments. Both of these possible uses have the DOE and active wear clothing manufacturer Under Armour excited.

“This is fascinating technology that will be well received by our customers when it reaches beyond military camo uses and into the hunting camo community,” weighed in Judy Babiasz, Marketing Coordinator for Just Camo, a clothing store which specializes in camouflage clothing.

Gorodetsky predicts color-changing clothing could be available within the next decade, but predicts camouflage will become even more adaptive in 30 to 40 years. “You could have a shirt that looks more like formal wear in one situation and then changes to look more like an informal T-shirt in another situation,” he says.