US military aims to combat chemical threats with ‘smart uniform’

In the next decade, U.S. soldiers could get new smart uniforms that are breathable but also designed to shield them from hazards like viruses and chemical weapons, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced on Wednesday.

The uniforms could be made of fabric that contains tiny carbon nanotubes that function as channels to let water vapor out, but at the same time block biological agents like viruses from entering. Each tube is tiny in diameter: a human hair is roughly 5,000 times wider. The lab said that that’s small enough to keep out biological hazards like the dengue virus.

The breathable channels are less than 5 nanometers wide, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

The breathable channels are less than 5 nanometers wide, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. (Ryan Chen/LLNL)

According to the lab, the fabric— a technology they call “second skin”-- is more breathable than Gore-Tex.

They’re also exploring new ways to use the fabric to protect soldiers from chemical agents, which actually could fit through the carbon nanotubes. One strategy involves having the tubes seal when they contact a threat— so the agent can’t get in— and another is based on the idea of a layer on the top of the fabric that can neutralize the agent, and then peel away.


“This is thought to be a really new paradigm of protection, because you can imagine that the soldier will wear a suit that is very breathable and comfortable to start with,” but once in a place with a chemical or biological threat, it will protect him or her, Francesco Fornasiero, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said in a video released by the lab that explains the new technology.

The researchers have published their findings in the journal Advanced Materials.

"The material will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment," Kuang Jen Wu, the leader of the biosecurity and biosciences group at the lab, said in a statement. "In this way, the fabric will be able to block chemical agents such as sulfur mustard (blister agent), GD and VX nerve agents, toxins such as staphylococcal enterotoxin and biological spores such as anthrax."

The lab said that the breathable, protective fabric is just one part of the new smart uniforms, which they estimate could be ready for use in less than 10 year’s time.

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