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Tiny Technologies Promise Powerful Protection

June 2011
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Magazine
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The U.S. Army’s Soldier 2030 concept includes this futuristic look for the infantry soldier. Research being done at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies supports the vision for a lightweight uniform offering a wide array of soldier protection capabilities.

U.S. Army institute researches nanosciences for soldier safety.

Today’s dismounted infantry soldier often packs more than 140 pounds and still has incomplete ballistic protection, insufficient defense against chemical and biological weapons, and too many pieces of equipment that do not work well together, according to officials at the U.S. Army Research Office’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. Reducing the cumbersome weight that soldiers lug around on the battlefield is a major priority for the Army, which is intent on transforming itself into a lighter, more flexible 21st century force. Research being conducted at the institute one day could help transform current combat fatigues and bulky equipment into a do-it-all battle uniform that not only is lightweight but also provides many other benefits.

Basic research conducted at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), which is housed within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is designed to develop and exploit nanotechnology to improve soldier survivability dramatically. The ultimate goal is to help the Army create a 21st century battlesuit that combines high-technology capabilities with light weight and comfort. Army officials envision a thin, bullet-resistant uniform that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically, and reacts instantly to chemical and biological agents. The multipurpose battle uniform is a long-range vision for how fundamental nanoscience might make soldiers less vulnerable to an array of threats, whether from the enemy or the environment.

The institute conducts fundamental research, and when that work proves especially promising, ISN usually passes it along to the Army Research Laboratory or other research centers for further development. The institute is less than an hour from the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center, Natick, Massachusetts, and over the years has developed a close working relationship with Natick scientists. “The reason the Army is interested in studying these materials is to provide the basis for any kind of technologies that ultimately could provide protection for our soldiers,” says Bob Kokoska, the Army’s ISN program manager. “In the end, it’s to provide a whole suite of lightweight materials and functionalities that will reduce the load on the soldier while providing unique tools and capabilities for soldier survivability.”

Recent advances include research into multifunctional fibers that has resulted in a prototype device for sensing explosives. The development could lead to a soldier battlesuit with a built-in acoustic sensor for sensing and locating explosions or sniper fire. Additionally, ISN’s research on coatings for materials has been transitioned to the Army Research Laboratory and the Natick Soldier Systems Center for development of a prototypical product to protect eyes from lasers. Other capabilities that have transitioned to the Army Research Laboratory include nanoscale coatings that provide both a water-repellent and microbial repellent function to keep soldiers dry and kill harmful bacteria at the same time.

ISN also has made strides in nanotube technology. One ISN scientist has developed a “drawing technique” that Kokoska compares to stretching candy. “One technology allows you to take, say, a plastic tube maybe a centimeter across that contains within it some materials that have optical properties so they react to different frequencies of light, or maybe they are able to sense an explosion. Envision this tube being drawn out, like a taffy pull, to the diameter of a human hair. This scientist has been able to draw this out and make meters and meters of this material in a way that maintains the optical or acoustic detection properties embedded there,” Kokoska explains. “This is a tremendous technology that has really gone a long way to miniaturizing different types of these sensing capabilities within fabrics and can have quite an impact on the capabilities that can be embedded in a soldier’s uniform.”

It is the nature of fundamental research that scientists sometimes discover unintended uses for the developed technologies. ISN’s nanotube research, for example, contributed to a surgical laser now being used at military and civilian hospitals. “Picture the interior of a narrow tube containing this metallic material that can act as a perfect mirror. The advantage is that you can pump CO2 laser light through it in a very flexible manner.”

That laser surgery technology has been commercialized by a company called OmniGuide and has been used in more than 25,000 procedures. “There was a surgeon who was trying to remove a brain tumor from a young patient, and he was very frustrated. Serendipitously, he found out about this technology while surfing the Web one night, and within a matter of days he saved his patient’s life with it,” Kokoska says. “The ISN was not tasked to develop surgical tools. What the ISN was developing were these material systems that could be used, for example, for fiber optic communications; but through the ingenuity on the part of some of the people at MIT, they were able to adapt that system for something completely different. In this case, it has a good payoff for the Army and for the civilian medical community as well.”

Kokoska speculates that nanomaterials potentially could result in a medicinal patch for battlefield use. “We may be able to develop a patch that you put on a wounded soldier that can sequentially release a burst of antibiotics over a period of time to ward off infection, or maybe provide a therapeutic anti-inflammatory agent. That patch could be finely tuned to address wounds,” he explains. He also suggests the possibility of a small device for detecting minuscule traces of harmful materials, such as chemical or biological agents. The device may or may not be integrated into the uniform, but would be easily available, he adds.

Blast and ballistic protection is one of the core areas of research, including the study at the nanoscale level of some sea creatures with hardened shells or beaks. Christine Ortiz, MIT professor of materials science and engineering, studies a wide range of natural materials in support of ISN’s quest for better body armor. Some of her research, for example, has focused on the so-called scaly foot snail, a type of sea mollusk that has a foot covered in plates of iron sulfide minerals. The snail’s tri-layered shell also is covered in a layer of iron sulfide and is more resistant to crushing than the typical snail shell.

The fundamental, multidisciplinary nanoscience research is conducted in collaboration with Army and industrial partners and focuses on five strategic areas: lightweight, multifunctional nanostructured fibers and materials; battlesuit medicine; blast and ballistic protection; chemical and biological sensing; and nanosystems integration.

Much of the research is aligned with the Army’s Future Soldier 2030 concept, which is not a part of Army doctrine. Instead, it is designed to stir imaginations and prompt researchers to find creative solutions for equipping future soldiers. “We are getting away from the creation of potential future soldier physical prototypes and are now supporting the soldier and small-unit research and development community with analysis, insight and concepting related to future technology-enabled capabilities,” explains Lt. Col. David Accetta, USA (Ret.), chief of public affairs and strategic engagement for the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.

Among other capabilities, the Future Soldier 2030 concept calls for a nanofiber-enabled, flexible, form-fitting, lightweight uniform. It may be paired with a vest for ballistic protection of vital organs and could include additional modular armor that can be attached for joints and extremities. Shear-thickening fluids and fabric composites may provide lightweight extremity protection. Limited protection from cuts and fragments could be built into the uniform using chain mail fabricated from carbon nanotubes. Additional protection for the extremities may be provided by an exoskeleton structure.

Founded in 2002 by a $50 million, five-year contract from the Army Research Office, the ISN is an interdepartmental research now approaching the end of its second five-year contract. This year, the institute is undergoing a major comprehensive review to determine whether the Army is receiving a good return on its investment. The ISN will be developing its next five-year plan, which will carry over or tweak current research projects while possibly adding new areas of study. If all goes well with the review, a new contract could be awarded before the current contract expires in summer 2012. “From my own perspective, the ISN has done a tremendous job in developing a strong basic science program and has worked with the Army to transition some of this work as well. We try to listen to what our soldiers’ needs are. That should always have a bearing on the research being done at the ISN,” Kokoska adds.

WEB RESOURCES
Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies: http://web.mit.edu/isn/index.html
Ortiz Laboratory at MIT: http://web.mit.edu/cortiz/www/
OmniGuide: www.omni-guide.com/