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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 08:20 GMT 09:20 UK
Nanotech future for soldiers
US Army soldier BBC
Nanotechnology seen as a way of protecting troops
By Chloe Veltman in San Francisco

The soldier of the future will prowl around a tropical danger-zone as noiselessly as a butterfly landing on a leaf, if the expectations of researchers at the US Army Soldier System Center are realised.

The scientists say that by 2025, combat gear will have evolved so that soldiers will be able to sense an oncoming attack, change chameleon-like to blend in with their surroundings and make temperature adjustments.

We are in the early stages of anticipating how nanotechnology will revolutionise army equipment

Tom Tassinari, US Army Soldier System Center
Nanotechnology will play a major role in the development of the new generation of army uniforms and equipment.

This is the science of manipulating particles smaller than 100 nanometres, or one-hundredth of the width of a human hair strand, to create new materials.

By changing the properties of materials, such as by introducing tiny nanoparticle reinforcements into polymers, nanotechnology will enable such advances as making helmets 40-60% lighter and creating tent-fabric that repairs itself when it rips.

Lighter, breathable uniforms

With the advent of nanotechnology, chemical protective overgarments, which shield soldiers against hazardous chemicals and deadly micro-organisms, will enter a new phase of development.

The new uniforms will be breathable and 20% lighter in weight than the standard battle-dress overgarment.

US Army soldier FAS
Aim to counter hazardous chemicals
"We are in the early stages of anticipating how nanotechnology will revolutionise army equipment," says Tom Tassinari, a scientist with the Soldier System Center in Natick, Massachusetts.

"Research in the field is already showing tremendous promise."

The US Army's budget for basic science and technology research stands at a modest $8.8 billion (or 2.7%) out of a total budget of $328.9 billion for FY 2002.

But nanotechnology is one of the military's key areas of focus, alongside chemical and biological agent detection and high-energy lasers.

In addition to awarding $8.75 million in research awards to academic institutions conducting nanotechnology research this year, the Department of Defense recently announced its intention to create a top-tier nanotechnology research centre, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology.

Over five years, the Institute, which will develop within an existing university, is expected to receive $50 million in funding.

Commercial potential

The commercial applications of nanotechnology are of particular interest to the scientists at US Army Soldier System Center.

We aim to help soldiers do everything they need to do with a smaller amount of equipment and a lighter load

Dr Mike Sennett, US Army Soldier System Center
Unlike the internet - which Dr Mike Sennett, a member of the materials science team at the Center, says was developed within the military rather than the marketplace because "it had no obvious commercial potential at the time" - nanotechnology is being deployed in many corners of the commercial sector.

"There's much more commercial drive for something like a computer switching device based on a single carbon nanotube," says Dr Sennett.

From Toyota cars to Nike trainers, nanotechnology has enhanced products and saved money.

Toyota developed one of the earliest uses of the technology in the early 1990s, when material scientists working for the company created a nanocomposite material out of reinforced nylon.

The material withstood car engine heat and was cheaper to produce than other forms of high-performance plastic, so it was readily adopted.

At Nike, nanoengineered soles have increased the cushioning properties of the company's training shoes.

Future goal

For the Army, developments across the commercial sector mean potential corporate partnerships and the possibility of adapting uses of nanotechnology for military purposes.

"A lot of research is going on and we are paying attention to how the materials are progressing and how they might be used within the army," says Mr Tassinari.

For the army scientists, the goal for the future remains clear.

"With nanotechnology, we can add properties to materials that weren't there before," says Dr Sennett.

"We aim to help soldiers do everything they need to do with a smaller amount of equipment and a lighter load."

See also:

15 Jan 99 | Sci/Tech
New twist for nanotechnology
13 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Nanomachines get their orders
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