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MIT work on super-soldiers commences
Wednesday, October 23 2002
by John Cradden

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After inking an USD50m deal with the US government, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will develop nanotechnologies to aid US Army soldiers.

The deal, which was announced earlier this year, has seen the world famous Boston-based institution establish the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology (ISN) that is in the process of developing lightweight molecular materials to kit out soldiers with uniforms and equipment that will help shield, heal and protect them against enemies.

With work now underway at the ISN, researchers are developing ideas such as near invisible uniforms, soft clothing that can turn into a rigid cast when a soldier breaks a leg, and ultra-lightweight, strong and flexible material made with novel rigid polymers and woven together with flexible coiled polymers.

Edwin Thomas, the Morris Cohen Professor of materials science and engineering, and director of the new institute, says that the goal of the work at ISN is to enhance the protection and survival of the infantry soldier using nanoscience and nanotechnology. "This will be achieved by creating, then scaling up to a commercial level, revolutionary materials and devices composed of particles or components [often] so tiny that hundreds could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. The idea is to incorporate these nanomaterials and nanodevices into the future soldier's uniform and associated equipage like helmets and gloves," Thomas said.

Thomas even spoke of soldiers being able to leap over 20-foot walls by "building up energy storage in shoes." Thomas went on to note that MIT researchers have recently created "world-record actuator materials" that are "better than human muscles."

Although some of these revolutionary products being developed by the ISN may appear within the next five years, others are more futuristic and a long way from becoming reality, he said.

The ISN is now focusing on six key soldier capabilities: threat detection, threat neutralisation (such as bullet-proof clothing), concealment, enhanced human performance, real-time automated medical treatment and reduced logistical footprint (i.e., lightening the considerable weight load of the fully equipped soldier).

One ISN goal is to reduce the weight of a soldier's equipment from today's 125 to 145 pounds to the 45 pounds carried by ancient Roman warriors, said Thomas.

The US army is clearly pinning its ambitions on nanotechnologies devices and materials that are engineered down to the tiniest molecular level. The power of this approach, in theory anyway, is that controlling a material's smallest features will allow researchers to build an array of functions and protections into a simple, lightweight outfit.

The research on nanotechnology materials that MIT demonstrated to the US Army also indicated the possibility of enhanced communication.

The institute showed off some optical threads capable of reflecting and absorbing different wavelengths of light with great accuracy something that could be exploited for remote infrared communication that might allow soldiers to silently identify themselves to allies at night, for instance.

The ISN employs 150 people, including 35 MIT professors for nine different departments in the schools of engineering, science, and architecture and planning as well as 80 graduate students.

In the US, research into nanotechnology has become big business. The new army institute is part of a national nanotechnology initiative that distributes about USD700 million annually. Along with the USD50 million for setting up the ISN, an additional USD40 million in funds and equipment has been pledged from commercial backers, including MIT's industrial partners DuPont and Raytheon.

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