Danish technology wants to revolutionise thermal camouflage
The startup DECPT, led by former SDU-ph.d. Jeanette Hvam, has developed a new form of thermal camouflage that could change the game in warfare. The invention could not only save lives, but also shape the future of military technology.
The wind howled through the bare trees and windows of the blown-out apartment building as the surveillance team marched up stairs covered in broken glass. The cold numbed their fingers as they set up their equipment: a thermal imaging camera the size of a laptop, its tripod and a Starlink dish and battery.
So begins a report in The New York Times from December last year about a surveillance team led by an American known as Wolf.
The journalist follows the soldiers who were the eyes of Ukraine in Bakhmut that night. The soldiers' task was to stare at the white-black glow of infrared images while trying to identify Russian positions.
The war in Ukraine is not sleeping. When night falls, it's all about adapting to the darkness. Thermal night vision is literally a matter of life and death. Being able to identify the enemy from afar is a huge advantage. But as important as it is to be able to spot the enemy, it's just as important to be able to hide.
Thermal camouflage is essential
In this context, thermal camouflage is essential. But advanced thermal camouflage is expensive. So far, thermal camouflage has been reserved for the protection of the most exclusive equipment, i.e., armoured personnel carriers and tanks.
Now, however, a Danish researcher has developed a new technology that is easy and cheap to produce, opening up completely new possibilities.
- The best way to protect yourself is to be invisible. We've developed a film with nanostructures so that Ukrainian tanks, for example, can blend in with their surroundings in not just the visible wavelength range, but the entire range. We can produce it in such large quantities and at such a low price that you can encase things in thermal camouflage that you couldn't afford before, says former SDU-ph.d. and now CEO of the company DECPT, Jeanette Hvam.
Collaboration with SDU's R2R facilities
SDU's roll-to-roll facilities on campus in Sønderborg are state-of-the-art when it comes to plate-to-plate and roll-to-roll vapour deposition of thin films on flexible foils in large volumes. Normally, the equipment is used for research and scale-up of organic solar cells, but the solar cell group headed by Professor Morten Madsen is making equipment and expertise available to Jeanette Hvam and DECPT in connection with the further development of the thermal camouflage.
- The photovoltaics group has expertise in coating various functional (continuous or nanostructured) thin films from smart materials on a large scale. Besides solar cells, LEDs and energy storage applications are among the main areas of use, but the technology can be extended to other areas where large-scale production of thin films on flexible foils is required.
- Read more here
The use of thermal equipment such as spotting scopes, night vision and drones with thermal imaging cameras has grown explosively in the war between Ukraine and Russia. The war is different from the conflicts the West has been involved in over the past 50 years. This is a symmetrical conflict.
Compared to the war in Afghanistan, where Denmark participated in the ISAF force, the Taliban were inferior to NATO in terms of equipment, which is why the war was asymmetrical. Asymmetric wars occur when one side is inferior to the other in terms of war equipment.
The international community, led by the US, sent the best military hardware to Afghanistan, and with radars, satellites, bombers, helicopters, artillery and remote-controlled drones, the enemy was far superior. As a result, there were fewer of the classic two-front battles. Instead, the Taliban had to resort to suicide bombs, improvised mines and roadside bombs.
The war is all about hiding
In the war between Ukraine and Russia, both sides are equipped with top-quality military equipment.
- Ukraine cannot armour itself out of danger. Russia simply has too powerful weapons. That's why it's all about hiding. Ukraine's problem is that Russia has the technology to detect them. This puts extra demands on what you need to do to hide. You have to hide in the entire wavelength range, says Jeanette Hvam.
In short, hiding in the wavelength range means that soldiers must not only be invisible to the naked eye, but also to thermal scanners.
The best way to protect yourself is to be invisible. We've developed a film with nanostructures so that Ukrainian tanks, for example, can blend in with their surroundings in not just the visible wavelength range, but the entire range.
In a video from the DECPT website, you can see how a van with an idling engine and a fan heater in the boot blends in with its surroundings as it is coated with the nanofilm developed by DECPT.
The video illustrates that thermal camouflage is a powerful tool for military applications where objects need to be hidden from the enemy. Despite the heat sources behind it, the van cannot be seen. This is because the nanofoil mimics its surroundings.
- The products available today are expensive and are therefore only used on the most critical frontline equipment, such as armoured vehicles. Current systems are purchased to last and be used for many years, and their camouflage effect is due to a complex composition of chemical compounds. With the technology race we are in in defence technology, you need updatable solutions, says Jeanette Hvam and elaborates:
- Camouflage film is inexpensive and most equipment can pretty much be wrapped in it. The underlying technology, which is not based on chemistry, is easier to update and therefore it is possible to replace it with the latest version at any time.
Not only cheap, but also flexible
Nanofoil technology is not only cheap and easy to mass produce. The thermal camouflage is also thin and pliable, making it a flexible product.
- Our film is so cheap that it's a use-and-throw-away product. You can apply it like stickers and then cut it on the spot with a craft knife. You can also repair it with tape or change it according to the surroundings if the vegetation changes.
This is in stark contrast to the current thermal camouflage solutions on the market, which are quite static and only fit the equipment or vehicle for which they have been customised.
Not surprisingly, the Danish Defence is quite interested in following the development of the revolutionary technology and its potential applications, and is working on a test of the thermal camouflage before the end of the year.
Will there be a fully tested product by the end of the year?
- Fully tested in the lab? Yes. Ready for war? No! Of course, we have an interest in executing quickly, but it just requires us to be more than two and a half people. So I hope to expand the business soon, says Jeanette Hvam.
DECPT ApS is a spin-off from Inmold A/S with more than a decade of experience within nanostructured foils. DECPT was founded in August 2022 with the purpose of developing and exploiting nanostructured foil for defence purposes focusing on thermal and visual shielding. DECPT are collaborating not only with experts from Inmold but also with Danish universities and RTOs. The company’s mission is to protect the people who protect us.Read more here
Jeanette Hvam holds an MSc in Physics with a PhD in Materials Sciences and Nanotechnology from SDU. She previously co-founded AmiNic ApS, a company behind a handheld sensor that acts as a highly sensitive nose - 1000 times more sensitive than the human nose. It can accurately and reliably determine the freshness of meat and fish and project to a correct expiry date.