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ISN projects include armor made of nanoscopic material

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Although the 21st-century equivalent of chain mail is many years away, other projects underway through MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies could aid the soldier within the next five years.

On Sept. 22 at the beginning of a four-day ISN annual review, MIT scientists gave highlights of ISN research in three key areas: protection, injury intervention and cure, and performance improvement. They also described "lower-hanging fruit" that could be ready relatively soon, such as an ultra-waterproof, antibacterial fabric for battle suits.

"The ISN is about basic research, but it's also about moving [that research] forward to impact the soldier," said Edwin Thomas, ISN director and a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He noted that MIT and its faculty are very good at technology transfer. Of the 37 ISN faculty, 22 have founded a total of 29 companies.

Thomas went on to describe several of the projects underway in the "protection" area. For example, composites of nanoparticles could be used in molecular chain mail. It's nothing new to weave objects that will protect you into a fabric, he said; picture the knights of old in their metal armor. The ISN project aims to create that armor using a mixture of nanoscopic materials.

The waterproof, antibacterial fabric for battle suits resulted from a collaboration between Professor Karen Gleason of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Professor Alexander Klibanov of the Department of Chemistry. Gleason developed a waterproof fabric that is also lightweight, while Klibanov created one with microbicidal properties that can go through a washing machine.

Together they combined the techniques, answering such questions as which to apply first, the microbicidal or waterproof layer (the answer: the microbicidal layer). The two wrote a paper on the work in July. Thomas noted that this collaboration "might not have happened if not for the ISN."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 24, 2003.

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