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Gov't developing smart suits to protect U.S. troops from bio attacks

Lawrence Livermore research team uses nanotubes to create clothing that one day could repel deadly attacks on military personnel

February 20, 2014 02:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A U.S. soldier is on patrol with his squad when he kneels to check something out, unknowingly putting his knee into a puddle of contaminants.

The soldier isn't harmed, though, because he or she is wearing a smart suit that immediately senses the threat and transforms the material covering his knee into a protective state that repels the potential deadly bacteria.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal government research facility in Livermore, Calif., are using nanotechnology to create clothing designed to protect U.S. soldiers from chemical and biological attacks.

The researchers turned to nanotechnology to overcome the tough task of creating military-grade protective clothing that's breathable and isn't heavy to wear.

"The threat is nanoscale so we need to work in the nano realm, which helps to keep it light and breathable," said Francesco Fornasiero, a staff scientist at the lab. "If you have a nano-size threat, you need a nano-sized defense."

For a little more than a year, the team of scientists has focused on developing a proof of concept suit that's both tough and inexpensive to manufacture. The lab group is teaming up with scientists from MIT, Rutgers University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and other schools to get it done.

Fornasiero said the task is a difficult one, and the suits may not be ready for the field for another 10 to 20 years.

Ross Kozarsky, a senior analyst with Boston-based Lux Research, said the effort could also lead to a lot of other uses for smart nano-based clothing or devices.

"I think it's definitely innovative. It's a pretty powerful platform technology," he added. "Materials that intelligently react to their external surroundings -- that is certainly an interesting class of materials. This is at the front end of the tunnel. Imagine an athlete wearing some kind of clothing that reacts to humidity or temperature and can make itself a lighter or warmer shirt."

Kozarsky also noted that smart clothing could be used for personal tasks, like measuring a user's heart beat, pulse and blood pressure.

Lawrence Livermore National Lab scientists
Lawrence Livermore scientists, from left, Eric Meshot, Shirui Guo, Francesco Fornasiero and Sangil Kim are some of the researchers working to create a protective suit using carbon nanotubes that would be worn by U.S. soldiers. (Photo: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld)

The technology could also lead to smart footwear, which could, for example, transform itself to repel potential danger found in water and keeping the user's feet dry.

The military also might consider adapting the base technology so instead of a nano-infused fabric transforming itself to protect a human from a biological or chemical attack, the smart material could be body armor that automatically strengthens itself based on the stress it's under.



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