Lightening the GI

As director of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, Dr Edwin Thomas’s mission is to make army packs lighter and save lives. Julia Pierce reports.

Watching young soldiers struggling through the Louisiana mud while preparing for the war in Iraq, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology realised the importance of their work.

‘When you see US Marines getting off planes in war zones they’re carrying up to 63.5kg. That’s about the weight of my wife,’ said Dr Edwin ‘Ned’ Thomas, director of MIT’s newly inaugurated Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. ‘We could see these young kids carrying huge amounts of weight around with the rain sinking into their packs and just making them heavier still. One of our researchers put on a protective vest and pack and it took two people to lift it on to his back. Soldiers have to carry this around for 14 to 16 days at a time. Our job is to ask whether we can reduce their load and also give them more protection.’

The institute was set up to use the emerging field of nanotechnology to improve the soldier’s lot, primarily through reducing their pack weight to just over 18kg – almost a quarter of the current load. This will be achieved through collaboration between MIT, industrial partners such as Du Pont and Raytheon and the US Army itself. A diverse mix of researchers, from senior scientists to graduate students, has been drawn together from a range of departments such as materials science and engineering. And Thomas, a professor of materials science and engineering and a former reserve soldier, is confident that the centre’s aims can be achieved.

‘Before this there weren’t many programmes targeted at improving the lot of the ordinary soldier,’ he said. ‘The Department of Defence spends money on large projects such as developing new aircraft carriers rather than on individual marines, even though they are the ones who get in there and do the fighting. We want to take nanotechnology and see if we can do something revolutionary, not evolutionary to improve the comfort and survivability of soldiers.’

As the amount of hardware issued to soldiers has increased, the weight each must carry into battle has soared. Yet still each fighter’s arms and legs are left unprotected. ‘It’s the Black Hawk Down scenario,’ said Thomas, referring to a scene in the film where a soldier bleeds to death while trapped in a building with his unit overnight. ‘Most battlefield deaths involve people bleeding to death from their extremities and Kevlar body armour does nothing to prevent this. It’s more than likely that our suit will resemble something more like a close-fitting wetsuit than the fatigues of today.’

He feels that as well as improving soldier agility and protection through materials research, systems rationalisation using nanotechnology could bring huge benefits. But he is keen to distance the centre from any nanotechnology hype. ‘We are the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, not the Institute of Nanotechnology for Everything,’ he said. ‘We won’t use nanotechnology if this doesn’t produce the best solution.

‘Miniaturisation, but also integration, are the keys to reducing weight. When equipment is developed each item seems to be designed independent of other concerns. For instance, the average infantry platoon carries 25 different batteries, yet only one of these is an AA. When soldiers are on duty this means they can’t then pick up replacements in a town – they need special supplies. People just don’t think about the practical side.’

It is also important for the finished article to be able to monitor its wearer’s health. ‘One of the biggest challenges is developing a system of non-intrusive physiological monitoring,’ Thomas said. ‘Around 70 per cent of medics get killed going to the aid of people who are already dead. Being able to see if someone was still alive and helping to prevent extra deaths would give a huge advantage.’

He predicts that the first step in the suit’s development is likely to be the completion of research into an exo-muscle polymer that can change properties if an electrical stimulus is applied. ‘Threads of this can be woven into the battle suit,’ said Thomas. ‘If the suit detected that the wearer was bleeding from the leg, it could tighten the fabric to slow the blood loss. Our aim is to get the material to change with the power and speed of human muscle and more. At the moment the displacement is good but not the speed, so by working with nanoscale materials we hope this will improve as the distance between the molecules is much smaller, making the response time faster.’

At the far end of the development scale, targets include making the suit dynamic and able to detect a sniper’s bullet or other incoming munitions, allowing it to instruct the material to momentarily toughen and protect its wearer. According to Thomas, this could be achieved using a fluid containing nanoparticles that in the presence of a magnetic force would form strings and solidify, turning the flexible material to armour until the force was removed.

‘When a bullet is fired there is a flash of light that travels a lot faster than the bullet or its sound,’ he explained. ‘It won’t be so good if the shooter is next to you, but if the ballistics are at a distance detecting it and responding to it could make for great protection. It might sound impossible, but the concept of airbags must have also seemed like that when it was first set out for passenger protection.’

The costs of developing the suit are high, particularly as the project may run for as long as 15 years. However, Thomas said that with many civilian applications for each technology, recouping this would be easy. ‘Emergency crews need protection from hazards, while oil rigs could benefit from lower insurance costs if their workers were better protected,’ he explained. ‘The suit could also be used by a businessman travelling to somewhere like Algeria. Although each item might cost $3,000-$4,000 (£1,800-£2,400), chief executives would pay that to make sure they were safe.’

A modified version of any soldier health monitoring system could allow patients to be monitored in their own homes, but would again prove useful in emergencies. ‘During incidents such as a large-scale terrorist attack, placing a monitor on each victim and co-ordinating their data remotely could help medical staff to manage a triage system when thousands of people needed attention,’ he added.

But Thomas warned that while such developments would have enormous benefits, the public must be educated to help avert a backlash that could damage or even halt research. ‘Michael Crichton [author of the novel Prey, where out-of-control nanobots threaten humanity] wouldn’t have had a book if he said everything was going to be OK. I’m looking forward to the Hollywood movie as the special effects are going to be great. But with its appeal to the mass market it will affect society a lot, particularly people who may not have read much about the reality of nanotechnology. We have to get things squared away beforehand.’