Feature Stories

Second Skin

Polymer scientists play pivotal “roll” in smart suit of the future
  • hand holding breathable carbon nanotube material for smart uniform of the future

Ken Carter, co-leader of the UMass Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing Test Bed program, introduced new concepts on how the ideal smart suit should act as a second skin; it should mimic skin’s natural defenses. 

Warfare has become vastly more complex with the introduction of chemical and biological weapons; soldiers must be prepared at all times to face a host of invisible villains with the power to kill on-contact. With the availability of such sinister weapons in hands unknown, U.S. military officials are asking for more from their uniforms.

The federal government has called upon a select team of researchers to develop a “smart uniform”—a lightweight, practical suit that can respond and react quickly to airborne threats. Uniquely equipped with the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing’s (CHM) state-of-the-art Roll-to-Roll Nanofabrication Laboratory and expertise in additive-driven assembly, UMass Amherst polymer scientists are playing a pivotal role in the development of the smart suit of the future. Kenneth Carter is the principal investigator of the campus effort along with colleague and CHM Director James Watkins, and is collaborating with a diverse group of researchers at institutions across the country including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Rutgers University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The 13-million-dollar project is multifaceted; each group is tackling a different aspect of the uniform’s development. Carter explains that the success of the project depends entirely on the team’s ability to collaborate and communicate across distances.

“This is not something that one person can do alone…we all have to work together to make it happen,” Carter says.

Carter, also the co-leader of the CHM test bed program, introduced new concepts on how the ideal smart suit should act as a second skin; it should mimic skin’s natural defenses. When exposed to a threat, our skin reacts - and as a last resort blisters, peels, and exfoliates to shed the contamination. Carter’s group is developing a nano-scale membrane that would serve a similar purpose and act as a protective layer for the suit’s outermost layers. Carter says the membrane will include specifically designed neutralizing catalysts—molecules that react chemically with an airborne agent to counteract their harmful capabilities. Watkins’ group is working on chemically additive-driven assembly—the process by which polymers and carbon nanotubes can be coated, and ordered for roll-to-roll manufacture.

At the core of the suit’s fabric lies a forest of carbon nanotubes—tiny, tube-shaped threads of carbon. Carter’s colleagues at LLNL have developed a method for growing the nanotubes and embedding them into polymeric material. These tubes are so small that no cell could pass through them, yet still large enough for water vapor to permeate. This is a crucial component to the suit’s breathability; soldiers must be able to wear the ‘second skin’ uniform in extreme heat. In order for the nanotubes to serve as a membrane, they must also stand upright, which is why researchers at Rutgers are experimenting with ways to keep them constantly charged with an underlying electric field. MIT is working on an added defense mechanism: microscopic hairs to place on the nanotubes that collapse when a threat is near and change color when exposed to a threat, alerting the soldier of the new danger.

“This highly breathable carbon nanotube membrane that has been functionalized with a chemical warfare agent resistive layer….will be the heart and soul of this protective uniform,” says Carter.

Once the science is fully developed, the team will use the CHM roll-to-roll fabrication facilities for membrane and layer production. However, the five-year project is still in its beginning phases. Taking advantage of the roll-to-roll equipment, Carter, Watkins and the team are experimenting with ways to engineer and deposit new polymer systems. Their passion for materials science will bring about the next generation of defense—a scientific exploration process that Carter compares to cooking.

“Just like in my kitchen where I love to experiment with a variety ingredients…different dishes and different spices… it’s very comparable to how we work in the lab. We introduce new chemistry and materials based upon scientific principles and test their properties, and as we perfect the recipe we adjust accordingly,” Carter says.

Amanda Drane '12

Banner photo: Jacqueline McBride, Lawrence Livermore National Lab