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Surprising Science

For Soldiers, Protection Against The Smallest Enemies

A University of Massachusetts team is developing a breathable fabric made of nanotubes that can switch into a protective state in case of a biological or chemical weapons attack.

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently received a grant from the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency for additional design and manufacturing of a composite fabric that will repel most biological and chemical agents. The primary layer is made up of carbon nanotube pores, which transport gases much faster than pores made from other materials. This makes the fabric extremely breathable when worn in normal conditions, yet close to impermeable in case of an attack involving biological or chemical weapons.

What’s the Big Idea?

Some biological agents, such as bacteria, are automatically blocked simply because the nanotube pores are smaller than they are. This isn’t the case for chemical agents such as nerve gas, which is where the extra protection comes in: The team is working on adding functional groups to the fabric that will sense and block the agent, as well as a “shedding” response that will cause the fabric to peel off upon contact with the invading substance. In all cases the material will switch states on its own without any external control. The team estimates that it will be part of military uniforms within the next 10 years.

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