UMass scientists combat biological, chemical agents

Last modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2013

AMHERST — Within the next decade, chemical and biological agents potentially harmful to military personnel in the battlefield could be repelled by new fabric being developed on the University of Massachusetts campus.

UMass polymer scientists Kenneth Carter and James Watkins, working with team leader Francesco Fornasiero of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., are working on what is known as a nanotube-based fabric. The reversible fabric, which would be used for military uniforms, is being described as a “smart second skin” because of its protective properties.

Carter and Watkins are specialists in combining polymers and nanoparticles to produce new materials.

The project is being funded by a five-year, $1.8 million grant that is part of a $13 million effort under the umbrella of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Michael Wright, business development specialist for the UMass Innovation Institute, said the project enhances the university’s reputation for a high-speed production technique known as “roll-to-roll” process technology, which allows materials created in the laboratory to be manufactured on a larger scale.

A portion of the membrane and layer fabrication will take place at the Roll-to-Roll Nanofabrication Laboratory at UMass.

“This is an opportunity to take practical technological solutions and apply them to the roll-to-roll platform,” Wright said.

He said participation in the project will allow the university’s polymer scientists to learn more about carbon nanotubes.

The concept behind the fabric for the uniforms is that it can quickly and automatically change from a highly breathable state that provides maximum comfort to soldiers to a state in which it is protective, yet still breathable, when an environmental threat is detected.

Fornasiero describes the uniform as being able to naturally react to varying outside conditions. “The uniform will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment,” he said.

According to Watkins, the new fabric’s reversibility is due to membranes with pores made of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes that are just a few nanometers wide, modified with a surface layer designed to respond to a chemical warfare agent. If a chemical agent is used in an attack, the fabric moves to a protective state by closing the pores or shedding the contaminated surface.

Because biological agents such as bacteria and viruses are close to 10 nanometers in size, larger than the membrane pores, they will be blocked out. The uniform remains breathable to prevent soldiers from heat stress in contaminated environments.

Chemical agents like mustard gas and nerve gas, which are smaller, require the membrane to be multifunctional to either block these chemicals or shed an outer layer.

“Mimicking the way real skin responds to threats by exfoliation and shedding of contaminated areas will allow for a dynamic responsive garment, all achieved through controlled chemical reactions in this new advanced fabric,” Carter said in a statement.

In addition to Carter, Watkins, Jeffrey Morse and YuYing Tang at UMass, the team developing the material includes Heidi Schreuder-Gibson at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, Timothy Swager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Robert Praino at Chasm Technologies, Inc. of Canton.

Wright said this makes it a “very Massachusetts-centered project.”

“It’s a real feather in the cap for Massachusetts to get this,” he said.


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