Sci-Fi War Uniforms?

It was the ultimate laboratory experiment. Prof. Ned Thomas and eight scientists from MIT last month traded in their white coats for military outfits at Fort Polk, La. The team was there to study soldiers in the field--and particularly their uniforms. Just what happens to a Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) "when an 18-year-old gets his hands on it?" asks Thomas, director of MIT's new Army-funded Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN). It was all well and good for the Ph.D.s to use computer models up at MIT, but live data from the rainy woods where troops train were invaluable.

The Army unit coming off a six-day exercise emerged in soaked, muddy uniforms. Thomas, along with the other engineers, wanted to know how many extra BDUs the troops had to carry along. Answer: none. Given a choice between dry clothes and extra weaponry, a soldier opts for ammo every time. Thomas then asked, "If you had a magic wand, what would you change?" Soldier after soldier replied he'd like a lighter load and "waterproofed everything." Even a soldier prefers comfy clothes.

Back in their Cambridge, Mass., labs, Thomas's group redoubled its efforts to build the military uniform of the future--not just light as silk and bulletproof, but able to rapidly change at the molecular level to adapt to biological and chemical threats. Is that anthrax just ahead? The material converts into an impermeable shield. Body gets injured? The pant leg morphs into a splint or even forms an artificial muscle. Nanosensors would also transmit a soldier's vital signs back to a medical team, as well as monitor his breath for increased nitric oxide, which is a sign of stress. "Let's change form!" is Thomas's mantra. He wants his sci-fi uniform to be able to detect lasers--you know, those red aiming beams an enemy uses right before firing off a round. "Light is faster than a bullet," says Thomas. "Maybe the human can't react fast enough, but materials can. Is this fiction? Yeah. Twenty years away? Maybe."

It depends on whether MIT can think small--really small. Big-ticket items like aircraft, tanks and carriers traditionally get the military's attention--and its money. But last year MIT won a spirited competition for $50 million from the Army to experiment in the budding area of nanotechnology. Working with partners Raytheon, Du-Pont and two Boston hospitals, MIT has a contract that initially runs for five years. The new 28,000-square-foot center for the nano institute opens on campus in May. It represents the latest melding of tech innovation and government funding--cutting-edge science in the service of practical needs.

"Nano" is the science of building materials with particles so tiny that tens of thousands could dance on the point of a pin. The largely theoretical technology, if it can ever be made to work well, holds the promise of a revolution: you could build almost anything from the molecular level up. Nano's best-known advances have been in electronics--things like smaller, faster chips. MIT is concentrating on applying the science to materials. "Just to protect their skin from the environment, soldiers might have to put on five sets of clothing," says Gen. Paul Kern of the Army Materiel Command. "What we hope to get is a uniform that can deal with all threats in one."

Today's basic BDU remains remarkably similar to what Kern wore in Vietnam. The Army has added polyester to the cotton and designed better camouflage, but the uniform still doesn't protect the soldier much better. The biggest innovation is body armor. Modern bulletproof vests combine Kevlar and ceramic plates, which can stop machine-gun rounds; they're 40 percent lighter than those used during the 1991 gulf war, but soldiers still complain about the bulk. And arms and legs remain exposed; otherwise, a soldier would look like the Michelin Man.

Labs like the Army's Soldier Systems Center in suburban Boston work with existing fabrics to improve uniforms. But it is MIT's task to come up with new materials altogether. Bio-medical engineer Robert Langer and his team have figured out a way to make "smart surfaces" that can change from being water-repellent to water-absorbent. The technique is to get molecules to "bend over" when they're given an electrical tickle. When the molecules alternately stand up or lean, different surfaces are exposed.

The trick is how to give the molecules--which stand packed together like nano-scopic blades of grass--room to maneuver enough to do the limbo. So the scientists make "designer" molecules that are shaped like mushrooms. That spreads the molecules out a bit. After the scientists lop off the mushroom caps, they're left with the stems that remain spread out. The extra elbow room is only a millionth of a dime wide, but in the world of nanoscience, that's enough room to dance. It will take about a decade before a real uniform can incorporate a smart surface, particularly one that can defend against chemical and biological agents.

Chemical engineer Karen Gleason will deliver her own waterproofing technique much sooner. Kevlar can't be made waterproof, so Gleason came up with a way to deposit nano layers of Teflon onto garments. The coating adds only .001 pound.

The lab of material scientist Yoel Fink may provide the most visible nano material: bags and drawers full of coils made from shiny, flexible fiber. Each threadlike fiber actually consists of 30 alternating layers of plastic and glass, each 100 nanometers thick. The fibers can be woven into a soldier's uniform to make it identifiable even in the dark. With special infrared goggles, a soldier could tell his buddy from his enemy from as far away as even thousands of feet. Right now, thermal sensors show only the human form. The fibers can be produced today but Fink is still working on what to do if the suit falls into enemy hands. To illustrate his research to the Army scientists reviewing MIT's grant proposal last year, Fink showed them a picture taken with an infrared camera. What looked like an empty black space sprang to life under the infrared light: MIT and ISN spelled out in optical fiber. Six weeks later, MIT won the grant.

It's not always easy to illustrate nano-science to the skeptics in Washington, who expect tangible results like Abrams tanks. Laboratory science rarely goes boom unless you've made a big mistake. And the grunts in the field often understand the new technology best. Of course, they're the ones who are going to depend on it in battle to survive. MIT loves to get feedback from troops and even some futuristic ideas. While at Fort Polk, Thomas heard from one soldier who suggested shrinking night-vision goggles down to the size of a contact lens. "Hard problem," Thomas thought. In the Army, they love challenges. Taking them on is called the "Hooah" spirit. Thomas is learning the Hooah spirit. It turns out that scientists and soldiers have more in common than they thought.

· Artificial muscles: Electroactive polymers could act like muscle fiber
·Breath tests: Nanosensors could measure nitric oxide, a sign of stress
·Biocides: Coated fabric could kill Staph and E. coli bacteria on contact
·Smart surfaces: Bending molecules could make fabric surface repel water