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Dressing to the Nines On the Battle Lines

July 2002
By Sharon Berry

University helps soldiers suit up with nanotechnology-enhanced clothing.

A project underway aims to develop a variety of nanomaterials that will aid threat detection and neutralization, enhance human performance, provide real-time automated medical treatment and reduce logistical footprint on the battlefield. The materials will be integrated into uniforms to protect soldiers and increase survivability.

To achieve these goals, the U.S. Army has awarded a $50 million, five-year contract to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, to found the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), dedicated to creating molecule-scale gear for the warfighter. The technology will provide soldiers with tools that are lightweight but can still protect against ballistic, chemical and biological threats; heighten athletic ability; and give medical care.

Approximately 150 people will staff the institute, including professors from nine departments in the schools of engineering, science, and architecture and planning. In addition to MIT faculty, the institute will enlist the support of graduate students, postdoctoral associates, Army specialists, industry and several health care organizations. Raytheon Company, DuPont, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital are the ISN’s founding partners. Industry is contributing an additional $40 million in funds and equipment for the institute. As the ISN grows, additional industry partners will be brought onboard.

ISN Director Edwin L. Thomas notes that a dedicated facility of approximately 25,000 square feet will be operational within a year. “Right now, we have about one tenth of that where we have a headquarters set up,” he says. The laboratories are being renovated, and Thomas projects that $6 million will be spent on equipment.

Thomas, who is the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, reveals that a lot of wild ideas are on the table for the battle suit’s capabilities, but everything is based on projects already ongoing at the school. “The vision here is that this uniform has different components working toward the same goals to help protect the soldier,” he explains.

“With all of our military spending on aircraft carriers and smart bombs, this project acknowledges the guys on the ground and asks what they have to work with,” he offers. “We give them night-vision goggles and Kevlar bullet-proof vests and that’s about it. How can you improve their uniform? You currently can go to an Army-Navy store and buy cotton fatigues. They’re good for gardening, but they sure don’t protect you very well, and they don’t enhance your performance. The question is how to move from the mindset we’re in now to something that gives us overmatch on the individual level.”

Seven research teams will address requirements for the super suit. Categories include energy-absorbing materials, mechanically active materials for devices and exoskeletons, detection and signature management, biomaterials and nanodevices for soldier medical technology, process systems for manufacture and processing of materials, modeling and simulation, and systems integration.

One of the primary requirements for the uniform is protection against the impact of ballistics and flying debris. “There are all kinds of threats, but people shoot bullets at you number one,” Thomas allows. “You can have a chemical and biological suit that can do wonderful things, but chemical and biological threats are pretty infrequent compared to how often people set off bombs and shoot bullets.”

Researchers will focus on using nanocomposites to configure a battle suit that employs a multilayered system. The composites would be woven together, transforming small-scale tools into a complete suit an infantry soldier could wear. The clothing would perform numerous function, thereby eliminating some of the heavier items now required. Today, a soldier’s equipment typically weighs between 125 and 145 pounds. The ISN’s goal is to reduce the weight to only 45 pounds.

Although it is not a primary threat, biological and chemical detection and compensation must be addressed. “Right now, if you have a chemical or biological threat, responders put on huge suits that are astronaut-like,” he says. “But that is for cleaning up a chemical spill. If someone is shooting at you and you are on the battlefield, you need to be able to move around. The question is how to protect against these threats in gear that allows you to move easily and makes you feel like a soldier, not a zombie.” Nanotechnology will help address these problems.

Real-time remote medical monitoring and treatment are critical factors in warfighter survivability, Thomas says. Therefore, teams are evaluating how these capabilities can be integrated into the gear. Sensors placed at key areas could indicate soldiers’ status—whether they are awake, tired or injured—and monitor physiological conditions such as blood pressure, pulse and temperature. If a soldier has been injured, a system would communicate where and how badly. Additionally, the soft suit would be designed to become rigid in the appropriate area to act as a splint for a broken bone.

The ISN will receive specialized input from two of its partners, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which conduct research on medical technology and monitoring. Scientists envision a shirt that would monitor patients—such as heart attack victims—detect an episode and signal to an in-house receiver that forwards the message to a monitoring station or hospital. “This would apply to soldiers with global positioning systems,” Thomas relates. “You know where all these guys are. Their suits would communicate their location and state of health. Some real-time medical treatment functions would be available to  increase their survivability.” In addition, the suit would be treated with an antibacterial property, which would help the types of injuries—such as scrapes—that tend to go untreated because a soldier is too busy or does not have the means to doctor it. “This would help low-grade injuries that could mushroom,” Thomas says. “If the inside of the suit had antibacterial treatments that stay on the suit and not wash off, that would be a nice addition.”

A researcher in MIT’s chemistry department is experimenting with antibacterial treatments that do not wash off and can kill bacteria for weeks. One of the first trials involved treating restaurant cutting boards.

Exploring advanced human performance is another way researchers are breaking the mold of traditional uniforms. They are developing the battle suit’s exoskeleton, which could make a wearer’s muscles more effective. “If you wanted to lift something, you would access a system to help you lift it,” Thomas shares. “You would have supra-human performance—above human performance, but not necessarily something like Superman.”

These types of capabilities rely on advances in actuator materials. Thomas explains that a muscle is an actuator that can create a force of 0.35 megapascals. “But how do you make these manufactured versions move or actuate?” Thomas asks. “Right now, they’re better than human muscles, but there’s no free lunch here. You have to power these things.”

He shares that MIT scientists, Ian Hunter, a mechanical engineer, and Timothy M. Swager, a chemist, are working with actuators that employ the properties of inherently conductive polymers. One such material, polypyrrole, is easy to prepare by standard electrochemical techniques, and its surface charge characteristics can be modified easily. The polypyrrole actuator can generate a force of 34 megapascals. But the manufactured actuators are somewhat slower than human muscles for activities such as a full flexion of an arm. Hunter and Swager are developing new generations of materials that have improved performance that promises to eclipse the properties of mammalian skeletal muscle.

“Imagine having this actuator material in the leg region of the body suit,” Thomas says. “If you were going to jump, you wouldn’t fire off something in the heels of your boots. You’re going to bend down, swing your arms and leap upward. Instead of using just your own muscles, you’re also going to use these polymer-based actuators to enhance your own muscle. We’re not doing this tomorrow, but in five to 10 years the technology should be available to enhance human performance. Maybe you don’t need to jump 20 feet, but enough to get out of harm’s way by jumping or running that is twice or three times what normal people can do.”

While many of the suit requirements have been outlined, a challenge that team members will face is how to manage the technology manufacturing process. “How do you get the properties you want, produce them and use them? There’s going to be some processing technology that is developed at this dedicated facility,” Thomas states. “In order for this to happen, we have to have very close relationships with industry to scale the technologies up, produce the prototypes, test them and field them for use.”

Thomas says that the ISN has set milestones for the first year. “We’re going to try to run the project by accelerating tasks that are proving to be successful and by closing down those that aren’t,” he says. “That is a little different than every day business at universities. Typically, you get a grant, it lasts three years, and they leave you alone until three years have gone by. We’re going to be monitoring things much more carefully than that.”

Additionally, the Army is staffing an executive committee that will advise ISN members and assist with evaluations. Annual reviews, talks, industry participation and a scientific advisory committee are other means to keep work on target.

As the research teams start meeting their goals, Thomas anticipates that there will be patents as well as technology transfers. “In addition to patents, we need patents that are licensed,” he says. “What good is a patent if it’s not licensed and no one is doing any thing with it? We want patents that have impact and that create companies and products—either faculty spin-off companies or MIT licenses to companies that are pledged to take it and practice it.”

For example, the uniform’s medical monitoring capabilities will have commercial applications. “If you went hiking, you might like to have one of these suits,” he explains. “You may not need the ballistic protection, but you’d like to be treated autonomously. If you break your leg, you can have the suit act like a splint. This would allow you to walk out of an area where otherwise you’d be stuck. Or the suit could exert pressure in a region where a person is bleeding. There’s a good civilian side to this.

“The Army is a rich source of challenging problems,” he observes. “You look at these problems and you say, ‘That’s impossible. We don’t know how to do that.’ But these are just the kinds of problems that people at MIT like—especially if you give us five or 10 years. This is to the Army’s credit for working out solutions that border on the impossible. If you don’t ask hard questions and look for visionary answers, you’re never going to get there.”