structural blue provides a heretofore unseen rich, deep color that’s bound to appeal to elite consumers in search of a unique look. Zhang said her development of the brilliant color grew from a study of metallic structures in the bodies of butterflies. “We worked with the basic principles of light to create a special effect,” she told Design News.
But her work on structural blue may just be a warm-up. Her current research is the stuff of science fiction, offering drivers the improbable capability of seeing through structures that block their field of view. To put it another way, she’s working on invisibility.
Toyota’s Minjuan Zhang demonstrates the invisibility cloak by lowering a yellow cylinder into the cloaking device. (Source: Toyota Motor Corp.)
The key to unlocking such capabilities, she says, again involves the basic principles of light. Working with fellow Toyota engineer Debashish Banerjee, Zhang has helped create an “invisibility cloak” with mirrors and polarizing lenses. The technology builds on similar research by other scientists but also adds dimensions never seen previously. The lenses obscure an object in a person’s field of view, essentially leaving a “visual black hole.” Then, they reroute light around the object, so that the viewer sees what’s behind it. The end result is that viewers believe they are seeing right through visual obstructions. Significantly, Zhang and Banerjee are accomplishing this in the lab using inexpensive materials, adding a dimension of practicality to the technology.
The yellow cylinder disappears inside the cloaking device and the toy car is visible behind it. (Source: Toyota Motor Corp.)
Toyota engineers decline to discuss the applications for the technology, but it’s relatively easy for a casual observer to guess at its possibilities. Used inside a vehicle, the invisibility cloak could eliminate interior obstructions, such as a vehicle’s roof pillars. With it, a driver could have an unobstructed view through a windshield, or a back-seat passenger could easily see out the side windows.
“We could still keep the same structures, but we could make them invisible so we could improve the view of the driver,” Zhang said. “Whatever [the obstruction] is, the driver could see right through it.”
Zhang, who is believed to hold the most patents of any female engineer in the auto industry, never foresaw herself doing such work. After earning her doctoral degree in material science and engineering from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, she initially worked in the semiconductor industry, developing wiring for integrated circuits.
But she said her move to Detroit and her subsequent automotive work with Toyota Research Institute of North America has been an ideal fit. “I went to the auto industry and I love it,” she said.
Ford infotainment engineer Joey Oravec: “We don’t want to deliver a product to the market, and then have the market test it for us.” (Source: Ford Motor Co.
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