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Combat Uniforms to Block Chemicals

September 9, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) _ To help soldiers survive, the U.S. Army is developing a new generation of combat uniforms using tiny, doctored fibers that let air through while blocking toxins from chemical and biological weapons.

The ``chemical protective overgarment,″ expected to ship in as little as two years, is one of the early uses of nanotechnology: the science of manipulating single atoms and molecules to create new products.

While nanotechnology won’t be ready to build tiny machines or computer processors for at least 10 years, researchers in materials science are already using it to change the properties of plastics, oils and textiles, giving them breathability, heat-resistance, strength and flexibility.

``They’re such small fibers, it’s not a trivial matter to get them into a uniform that’s going to be twisted and sat on,″ said Tom Tassinari, a scientist with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center in Natick, Mass.

Ten years out, the Army hopes to distribute a ``smart″ combat uniform with nanoengineered fibers, embedded sensors and tiny computers that allow it to stop bullets, monitor vital signs and undergo chameleon-like camouflage changes that blend in to surroundings, Tassinari said.

In the military and civilian worlds, a wave of new nanoproducts are emerging, though none as sexy as, say, the carbon nanotube mini-robots that may someday swim in our blood streams and repair damaged cells.

Products include scratch-proof eyeglasses, helium-filled sneakers and plastic-encased ballistic missiles.

Eddie Bauer sells $42 Nano-Care khakis, with a cotton fabric that undergoes a chemical treatment devised by Nano-Tex, a subsidiary of Burlington Industries Inc. The treatment adds an outer structure to the cotton molecule to better fend off wrinkles and globs of ketchup, said Delores Sides, a Burlington spokeswoman.

Nano-Tex has added liquid-repellent characteristics to fabrics used on couches, and breathability to synthetics, giving them the comfort characteristics of cotton.

The company is now testing an odor-trapping fabric whose molecular-sized sponges hold stale vapors through multiple wearings, until the item _ socks, for example _ come into contact with a washing machine’s soapy water.

In Fountain Valley, Calif., Hybrid Plastics is creating nanoparticle additives for plastics found in everything from high-performance jet engine lubricants to weatherproof circuit boards in boats and swimming pools.

Like other nanotechnology practitioners, Hybrid Plastics alters the molecular structure of its raw material to create a new structure with properties that go far beyond the original.

The nanoparticles that make up the powder and liquid additives sold by Hybrid are tiny. The largest has a diameter of just 3 nanometers, or billionths of a meter.

The nanoparticles are used in plastic that carries the qualities of an industrial ceramic: resistance to heat and cold, super-hard toughness and flame resistance.

Joe Lichtenhan, president of Hybrid Plastics, said versions of Hybrid-enriched plastics are being tested by NASA on the exterior of the International Space Station, and by military and aerospace firms as a replacement for the metal bodies of ballistic missiles and satellite launch rockets.

The nanoplastic missiles are cheaper and easier to manufacture than metal-jacketed ones and can protect the payload _ whether a warhead or satellite _ from collisions with space junk while enduring the deep cold of space and the heat of re-entry, Lichtenhan said.

Hybrid is also developing a nanolubricant for the Air Force that can handle temperatures of 500 degrees Fahrenheit _ about 100 degrees higher than current oils _ without burning or breaking down, Lichtenhan said.

Other chemical firms toiling in the nanorealm include DuPont, whose scientists are trying to create fibers that conduct electricity and change their shape from round to square or triangular. DuPont wants the fibers to be used in clothes that change color and size at a wearer’s command, said DuPont spokeswoman Leslie Cormier.

A small company outside Boston, Triton Systems, Inc., is selling a nanoengineered plastic pouch for use as a helium-filled heel cushion in Converse Helium sneakers sold in Japan and China.

Trition uses an additive of clay nanoparticles to tighten the molecular structure of the pouch, allowing it to trap the helium underfoot for a minimum of 18 months, said Ross Haghighat, Triton’s chairman and chief executive.

Triton is also developing a scratch-proof plastic coating for U.S. Navy helmet visors and jet windows, Haghighat said. The nanocoating might soon be used to scratch-proof regular eyeglasses, he said.

Another material sciences firm, Nanophase Technologies Corp., of Romeoville, Ill., sells nanoengineered particles, such as zinc oxide, to manufacturers of products as diverse as industrial coatings and cosmetics.

At a few dozen nanometers, Nanophase’s zinc particles _ used in a clear sunscreen being developed _ are small enough to be invisible to the human eye, but still block harmful ultraviolet light.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two stories exploring nanotechnology, the science of manipulating single atoms and molecules.


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