Scientists at the US Naval Research Laboratory‘s Center for Bio/Molecular Science and Engineering (CBMSE) have developed what they say is a new cost-effective, self-decontaminating ultrathin materials coating that actively destroys pesticides and related chemical agents on contact.
The coating is said to neutralise toxins instantly leaving no hazardous residue, which makes it ideal for use in protective clothing for military personnel and civilians. The coating can also be applied to materials used in filters for water purification, and in wipes for chemical spill clean-ups.
Unlike composite fabrics, where rubber or synthetic alternatives are sandwiched between layers, the NRL approach coats each individual thread before it’s woven so that the fabric is treated throughout. This is mean light, comfortable protective clothing that will draw off body moisture when used in warmer climates. And, because the coating is active throughout, it provides better protection against permeation and ensures the integrity of seamed areas on pieced fabric.
One challenge faced by the military is the problem of hazardous materials clean-up and/or disposal should a toxin exposure occur, says NRL principal investigator, Dr. Alok Singh. Coatings that simply collect molecules or toxins from the environment do so selectively and over time can actually produce a hazardous substance during the self-degradation process. The resultant substance can be a more potent toxin because it is then concentrated in the fabric. Because the NRL coating neutralises the molecules on contact during the degradation process, it solves the problem of potentially dangerous and expensive remediation measures.
The NRL coating is an ultrathin, layered, composite film (500nm) containing enzymes that actively degrade chemical toxins. Compared to other degradation methods, the enzymes have shown longer active times and greater stability. The enzymes are also versatile as they can be selected for activity against specific target toxins. NRL researchers have successfully tested the coating on cotton fabric and glass cloth using pesticides, including the nerve agent simulant methyl parathion.
Further, the NRL coating is both cost-effective to produce and apply. The coating can be readily applied to substrates such as beads, fabrics, or paper by inexpensive methods such as dip coating, spin coating or spraying, adds Dr. Walter Dressick, a researcher working on the project. Fabrics made with the coating withstand repeated washing with water and are therefore reusable. Says Dr. Singh, “We have developed this coating to perform in a real-world environment.”