New smart uniforms protect soldiers from chemical agents

New smart uniforms to protect soldiers from chemical agents

7:34 AM, 6th August 2016
New smart uniforms to protect soldiers from chemical agents
Researchers Eric Meshot, left, and Ngoc Bui evaluate the uniformity of a carbon nanotube array covering the entire area of a 4-inch wafer.

LIVERMORE, US: The work aims to protect soldiers from biological and chemical threats, a team of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists has created a material that is highly breathable yet protective from biological agents.

This material is the first key component of futuristic smart uniforms that also will respond to and protect from environmental chemical hazards. The research appears in the journal, Advanced Materials.

High breathability is a critical requirement for protective clothing to prevent heat-stress and exhaustion when military personnel are engaged in missions in contaminated environments. Current protective military uniforms are based on heavyweight full-barrier protection or permeable adsorptive protective garments that cannot meet the critical demand of simultaneous high comfort and protection, and provide a passive rather than active response to an environmental threat.

The LLNL team fabricated flexible polymeric membranes with aligned carbon nanotube (CNT) channels as moisture conductive pores. The size of these pores (less than 5 nanometers, nm) is 5,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

"We demonstrated that these membranes provide rates of water vapor transport that surpass those of commercial breathable fabrics like GoreTex, even though the CNT pores are only a few nanometers wide," said Ngoc Bui, the lead author of the paper.

To provide high breathability, the new composite material takes advantage of the unique transport properties of carbon nanotube pores. By quantifying the membrane permeability to water vapor, the team found for the first time that, when a concentration gradient is used as a driving force, CNT nanochannels can sustain gas-transport rates exceeding that of a well-known diffusion theory by more than one order of magnitude.

The results show that CNT pores combine high breathability and bio-protection in a single functional material.

However, chemical agents are much smaller in size and require the membrane pores to be able to react to block the threat. To encode the membrane with a smart and dynamic response to small chemical hazards, LLNL scientists and collaborators are surface modifying these prototype carbon nanotube membranes with chemical-threat-responsive functional groups. These functional groups will sense and block the threat like gatekeepers on the pore entrance. A second response scheme also is in development -- similar to how living skin peels off when challenged with dangerous external factors. The fabric will exfoliate upon reaction with the chemical agent.

"The material will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment," said Kuang Jen Wu, leader of LLNL's biosecurity & biosciences group. "In this way, the fabric will be able to block chemical agents such as sulfur mustard (blister agent), GD and VX nerve agents, toxins such as staphylococcal enterotoxin and biological spores such as anthrax."

"These responsive membranes are expected to be particularly effective in mitigating a physiological burden because a less breathable but protective state can be actuated locally and only when needed," said Francesco Fornasiero, LLNL's principal investigator of the project.

The new uniforms could be deployed in the field in less than 10 years.

Other researchers contributing to this work include Eric Meshot, Jose Pena, Sangil Kim and Phillip Gibson (Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center).

The work is funded by the Chemical and Biological Technologies Department of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program.

© Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory News

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