The United States Army has selected MIT to create lightweight molecular materials to equip the foot soldiers of the future with uniforms and gear that can heal them, shield them and protect them against chemical and biological warfare.
MIT won the Army competition for the five-year, $50 million proposal for an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN). Industry will contribute an additional $40 million in funds and equipment.
"This is a wonderful day for MIT, and I hope a wonderful day for the nation as well," said Dean of Engineering Thomas Magnanti at a news conference March 13, the day of the Army's announcement. He was joined by Provost Robert Brown; Professor Edwin Thomas, director of ISN; Alice Gast, vice president for research and associate provost; and Professor Paula Hammond of chemical engineering. Gast and Hammond played lead roles in planning the new institute.
The ISN will be staffed by up to 150 people, including 35 MIT professors from nine departments in the schools of engineering, science, and architecture and planning.
"I applaud my colleagues who have worked long and hard to win this competition," said Brown. "This is an important [milestone] in MIT's history." He noted MIT's history of responding to the needs of the nation's military by rapidly developing technologies that save soldiers' lives.
In addition to MIT faculty, 80 graduate students and 20 postdoctoral associates, the ISN also will include specialists from the Army, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., Raytheon Co. and physicians from Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital. The two hospitals and MIT also are members of the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology.
These researchers will develop ideas such as a uniform that is nearly invisible, soft clothing that can become a rigid cast when a soldier breaks his or her leg, and extremely lightweight chain mail made of novel rigid polymers woven together with flexible coiled polymers to create a material with unusual mechanical properties and strength.
"Our goal is to help greatly enhance the protection and survival of the infantry soldier using nanoscience and nanotechnology," said Thomas, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.
"This will be achieved by creating, then scaling up to a commercial level, revolutionary materials and devices composed of particles or components [often] so tiny that hundreds could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. The idea is to incorporate these nanomaterials and nanodevices into the future soldier's uniform and associated equipage like helmets and gloves," Thomas said.
In addition to protecting the individual soldier, "imagine the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armor and endowed with superhuman capabilities, such as the ability to leap over 20-foot walls," said Thomas. The leaping ability, he explained at the news conference, would be enabled by "building up energy storage in shoes." Thomas went on to note that MIT researchers have recently created "world-record actuator materials" that are "better than human muscles."
What is the time frame for the revolutionary products ISN researchers foresee? Although "we hope to deliver some goodies early," within the next five years, Thomas said, some are indeed futuristic and many years from reality.
"I'm convinced that [over the next five years] we will do great engineering and great science," said Magnanti. "The question is how far we'll get toward [the more futuristic] goals."
Brown noted that "if you don't have a vision that pushes the science and engineering for a giant leap, you can't do anything."
The ISN will focus on six key soldier capabilities: threat detection, threat neutralization (such as bullet-proof clothing), concealment, enhanced human performance, real-time automated medical treatment and reduced logistical footprint (i.e., lightening the considerable weight load of the fully equipped soldier). At the news conference, Thomas noted that one ISN goal is to reduce the weight of a soldier's equipment from today's 125 to 145 pounds to the 45 pounds carried by ancient Roman warriors.
These themes in turn are addressed by seven research teams: energy absorbing materials, mechanically active materials for devices and exoskeletons, detection and signature management, biomaterials and nanodevices for soldier medical technology, process systems for manufacture and processing of materials, modeling and simulation, and systems integration. In addition, Raytheon, DuPont and the two hospitals are founding industrial partners, who will work closely with the ISN and with the Army Natick Soldier Center and the Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Md. to advance the science in field-ready products.
The researchers are confident that these teams will build off each other to create products with a variety of applications. For example, an "exoskeleton" for the soldier composed of such things as novel nanoparticles, electroreological fluids and polymer actuators could provide not only ballistic protection, but also be transformed into a medical cast (on demand). Alternatively, it could be activated to create an offensive "forearm karate glove," they said.
MIT has a history of applying revolutionary technologies to the country's war efforts. In World War II, for example, MIT's Radiation Laboratory rapidly developed radar that saved untold lives by warning of incoming aircraft. And during the Cold War, MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory (now Charles Stark Draper Laboratories) developed critical inertial guidance systems for missiles.
"Now yet again the United States faces threats that challenge our country to capitalize on the enabling power of novel technologies. The ISN really embodies a great opportunity to create these new technologies to protect our soldiers," said Thomas.
At the press conference Lt. Col. Brian L. Baker, commander of MIT's Army ROTC program, noted that in the past, technology has been used "to take the man out of the loop. Here you're applying [MIT's] greatest strengths to help the man or woman him/herself."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 20, 2002.