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Lab Developing Fabric that Repels Chemical, Bio Agents

Sample of fabric made from carbon nanotubes (Lawrence Livermore National Lab)

Sample of fabric made from carbon nanotubes (Lawrence Livermore National Lab)

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is developing a new material for military wear that repels chemical and biological agents using a fabric made from carbon nanotubes. The five-year, $13 million project is funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, with collaborators from MIT, Rutgers, University of Massachusetts, Natick (Mass.) Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, and Chasm Technologies Inc.

The new material needs to have high breathability for normal environments, yet still provide protection against chemical or biological attacks. Current protective military uniforms use heavyweight full-barrier protection or permeable protective overgarments that cannot meet these specifications.

The Livermore Lab material (pictured left) will quickly change from a breathable to a protective state, using membranes with pores made of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes just a few nanometers wide; 1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter. The membranes will be modified with a layer that can respond to chemical warfare agents. In the event of a chemical attack, the material will switch to a protective state by closing the carbon nanotubes in the fabric, and shedding the contaminated outer layer.

Carbon nanotube pores, say the Livermore Lab researchers, have faster gas transport rates by two orders of magnitude, compared with any other pores of a similar size, which can provide the high breathability. The carbon nanotube membranes will be also be small enough to block bacteria and viruses, which are some 10 nanometers in size.

Chemical agents and some biological agents such as anthrax spores, however, are smaller than bacteria and viruses and need the outer layer. The extra layer is treated with chemical compounds that can detect these smaller intruders and shut the carbon nanotubes. The Livermore team is adding the capability to exfoliate or discard the outer layer, so soldiers can shed the contaminated material.

“The uniform will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment,” says Francesco Fornasiero, Livermore Lab’s principal investigator on the project.

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