Current chemical and biological threat suits used by the military are restrictive and hot, limiting the effectiveness of soldiers in contaminated environments. To offer protection against a variety of chemical and biological agents, current military contamination suits are designed to be impermeable. Researchers at UMass Amherst have invented a fabric that is both breathable and responsive to chemical and biological threats. The researchers have incorporated vertically aligned carbon nanotubes into a functional base layer polymer fabric with pore sizes only a few nanometers wide.
Carbon nanotubes have very high pore transfer rates relative to pore diameter, allowing the fabric to remain breathable. Most biological agents such as bacteria and viruses are about 10 nanometers wide; too wide to fit through the pores created by the carbon nanotubes. Smaller chemical agents like mustard gas and VX nerve agent and biological spores like anthrax will trigger a shedding response from the carbon nanotubes. The nanotubes will react with the agent, trapping the agent inside of the nanotube. The nanotubes then shed from the fabric in a response similar to the skins ability to exfoliate.
The researchers have attached the carbon nanotubes to the polymer fabric in functional groups by the use of a laser ablation technique. Laser abation uses high powered lasers to grow the carbon nanotubes on a substrate, in this case the fabric, from a gas or plasma. This biomimetic fabric is in the engineering phase, and should be available to military personnel within the next decade[fn]http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/umass-amherst-research-develops-%E2%80%9....
This fabric would be a generational improvement on existing fabrics used in chemical and biological contamination suits.
This fabric will improve health and safety for soldiers and others in contaminated environments by allowing for more breathable chemical and biological agent suits as well as allowing for suits responsive to multiple threats.
The fact the material is designed to shed carbon nanotubes creates uncertain environmental and ecological risks due to the toxicology of carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes have been shown to accumulate in the gut of terrestrial and sub aquatic species, but bioaccumulation of carbon nanotubes in these species is rare. Carbon nanotubes have also been shown to pierce the root cell walls of some plants, particularly staple crops like wheat, but they have not been shown to fully enter the cell structure. When CNTs become aerosolized, they pose threats to humans through inhalation into the lungs. Carbon nanotubes can pierce cell walls and have been shown to accelerate lung and cardiovascular disease in mice. More research on the toxicology of carbon nanotubes is necessary to fully understand how they negatively impact human health.