Werner Nickel came to the desert because he had bred a worm whose excrement made it possible to grow radishes in the dry desert sand. The sheikhs were impressed with the inventor -- a German no less -- who could reclaim their land. So Nickel, 67, a wheelchair-bound amateur inventor from Berlin, moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to run his new project.
The project seemed promising at first, as cucumbers, radishes and beans thrived on Nickel's test fields on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. But the project also consumed vast numbers of worms -- 3,000 per square meter, to be exact -- which eventually made the project too costly for its sponsors.
Nickel, who is literally bubbling over with ideas, simply shifted gears. This time, he decided to concoct a paint to shield tanks, ships and aircraft from radar detection in much the same way that Stealth bombers are invisible. Nickel already had a name for his miracle paint: AR 1.
Since then, the worms have been left to their own devices. All that's left of that project are two dried-out vivariums in Nickel's institute on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Road in Ras Al-Khaimah, one of the UAE's seven emirates. He occasionally receives visitors. "People tap on the glass and are upset if the worms don't crawl out of the soil immediately," says Nickel. "They just don't have any patience."
But Nickel has patience. After spending thousands and thousands hours in the laboratory, he finally mixed the paint he was looking for. He sent a can of it to Helmut Essen, a radiation physicist who runs the radar technology department at the Research Establishment for Applied Science (FGAN) near Bonn. Essen examined Nickel's paint and was surprised to learn that it works "and for all militarily relevant frequencies," he says.
Now You See It, Now You Don't
When a house, a ship or a car that would usually light up on a radar screen is coated with AR 1, it disappears almost completely into the darkness. Essen hasn't been able to figure out why this happens. It might be because the paint is a type of Jaumann absorber, which reflects incoming radar waves in such a way that they cancel each other out. Or it could have something to do with microscopically minute magnetic particles that absorb the radiation's energy.
But Essen still isn't sure what exactly makes the paint work. Essen considers the fact that Nickel concocted the paint out in the desert -- with almost no research resources at his disposal -- "almost unbelievable." And yet, each sample Essen has received from Nickel over the years works a little better than the last one. "How on earth does the man do it?" Essen asks.
Essen is now familiar with the desert inventor's full story. Nickel started looking into radio shield paints during the Cold War. A Yugoslavian friend working at his country's consulate in West Berlin introduced Nickel to weapons experts, including an American living in a villa in West Berlin. In the early 1980s, the American invited Nickel to visit a restricted military zone to demonstrate an aluminum ball coated with one of his first paints. The results were disastrous. "Take it easy," the American said. "You've only lost one battle, not the entire war." Nickel kept on trying.
At a certain point, people interested in Nickel's special paint started contacting him. In early 2002, he received a visit from an Iraqi who told him that the government of then-dictator Saddam Hussein was looking for ways to hide its fortifications from US air patrols. "We send you our compliments," a letter from Baghdad dated March 20, 2002 reads, "and invite you to visit our production facilities." According to Nickel, the Iraqis offered him $18 million (€11.2 million), half of it in oil options. "But the whole thing got too hot for me when they booked us rooms in the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad," Nickel says.
In 2007, the Chinese started knocking on his door. Representatives of a Shanghai-based company called G.S. Holding told Nickel that they were "very interested in your product" and promised him profits in the "huge Chinese market." He was flattered by the offer, Nickel says, and he still plans to meet with a delegation from the Chinese Ministry of National Defense in May. In the end, however, he prefers "reasonable people from my own country."
Unforeseeably Behind the Times
The Germans have known about Nickel's paint for a long time. In 2004, Nickel sent the first sample of his paint to FGAN, whose main client is the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces. The effectiveness of AR 1, experts at the FGAN told him, went "well beyond the level we have been able to achieve with similar paint samples." In 2005, the FGAN had a Unimog -- an off-road vehicle manufactured by Mercedes -- coated with Nickel's paint, and then it presented the shielded vehicle to defense experts. Delegations from Singapore, the UAE and the Netherlands came to see the vehicle.
Ironically enough, however, the Bundeswehr showed little interest. In July 2007, Nickel complained to the German Defense Ministry. "I should point out to you," he wrote, "that various foreign countries have now expressed an interest in buying the paint." Officials from the ministry then contacted Essen at FGAN. "They called me and wanted me to confirm that Nickel was a nut," Essen recounts. "But, unfortunately, I wasn't able to help them out."
Since then, the tone has changed, and Nickel has been receiving very friendly mail from Rheinmetall, a defense contractor that has called his product "truly impressive," from radar shield manufacturer Tec-Knit, which wrote that it was "excited about your shielding effectiveness," from the Defense Ministry itself and from the Bundeswehr Technical Center for Protective and Special Technologies (WTD 52). Essen plans to present the new shield paint to the international press next week.
"It could certainly be of military value," Essen says, referring to both land-based and airborne forces. In addition, the Bundeswehr Technical Center for Ships and Naval Weapons (WTD 71) in Eckenförde on the Baltic Sea plans to test whether the paint can be used on the high seas.
The fact is, however, that radar camouflaging is no longer as important to the military as it once was. "It was a huge issue during the Cold War," says Essen. "But, nowadays, it's more of something that's nice to have." Moreover, when deployed abroad, the Bundeswehr is often more interested in achieving precisely the opposite effect, i.e., being highly visible.
In all likelihood, Nickel's invention is probably more valuable for civilian use. Pilots and air traffic controllers worldwide complain about the interfering effect that airport buildings have on the radar screen. If they were coated with Nickel's paint, they could be made largely invisible. "I've been trying to tell him for a long time," Essen says, "that he's more likely to get rich in civilian aviation than with the military."
In one respect, however, Essen's message is disappointing. Drivers can't expect to become invisible to police radar traps anytime soon. "When an object is moving at such close range," he admits, "even the best shield paint doesn't do any good."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan