Mainland scientists are increasingly confident of developing the world's first invisibility cloak, using technology to hide objects from view and make them "disappear".
The central government has funded at least 40 research teams over the past three years to develop the idea, which until now has largely been the stuff of science fiction and fantasy novels like the Harry Potter series.
The technology would have obvious military uses such as developing stealth aircraft, but Beijing believes the research could lead to wider technological breakthroughs with broader uses, scientists involved in the research said. The teams involved include researchers at Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The main approaches are developing materials that guide light away from an object, creating electromagnetic fields to bend light away from what one is trying to hide and copying nature to make hi-tech camouflage materials.
A team led by Professor Chen Hongsheng at Zhejiang University released a video last month demonstrating a device that made fish invisible. The same technology also apparently made a cat "disappear". The device was made of a hexagonal array of glass-like panels, which obscure the object from view by bending light around it.
Other mainland teams have made similar breakthroughs.
Many other top universities and research institutes are also involved in invisibility studies in China. They include Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing Institute of Technology, Xian Jiaotong University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Tsinghua University and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.
Some researchers declined SCMP's request for an interview due to the military sensitivity of their research.
A team at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, for instance, was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China to develop "full invisibility" technology and material for hypersonic jets similar to NASA's X-43A scramjet.
The hypersonic vehicle could be used to delivered nuclear warheads around the globe with speed at least five times faster than sound.
"We are invisible people studying invisible technology," said a researcher involved in the project.
Professor Ma Yungui, an optical engineering specialist at Zhejiang University, said his team would soon announce their latest finding: a device that stops objects being detected by heat sensors or metal detectors.
Ma's device is as large as a matchbox, but it could be increased in size to allow weapons to pass through security checkpoints. Another potential application is to stop agents or troops moving at night being caught by infrared cameras.
"Many people have asked me if the technology can be applied on fighter jets so they can get heat-seeking missiles off their tail. Well, we may work on that," he said.
Ma said a useable and practical invisibility cloak might still be decades away as it needed super-materials that could not be produced with current technology, but the central government was still pouring funds into research because the theoretical knowledge gained could produce many potential spin-offs.
Ma said his team had received funding from the government to develop an invisibility cloak and their device was a byproduct of their research.
"I went to an international forum on invisibility studies in Paris last year and found that at least a third of the researchers came from mainland China. It is challenging to get a research grant no matter what the subject is, but the government’s support on fundamental frontier research such as invisibility study is strong and increasing."
Ma said China had caught up with the traditional leaders in the field, such as the United States and Europe.
"I think we have about a 40 per cent chance of making the world's first invisibility cloak," he said.
One of the reasons he is so confident is because so many of the world's experts on invisibility technology are Chinese, and also there was extensive collaboration within the Chinese scientific community, he said.
Professor Wang Guoping, of the physics department at Wuhan University in Hubei province, who is also researching the invisibility cloak, agreed Chinese scientists now have the edge in developing the technology.
Mainland scientists were not as good at proposing groundbreaking theories but were excellent at working hard on laboratory research to refine the technology and the materials needed, he said.
"The competition is no longer about the theory, but the materials. Chinese scientists have a natural advantage there," Wang said. "Chinese scientists are gaining the lead not only on the invisibility cloak, but in many fields of advanced research."