Soldier of the Future: Army Turns to Nanotechnology

March 18, 2002 | Source: New Scientist

Backed by a US Army grant of $50 million over five years, MIT has launched a new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

The institute is tasked with innovating materials and designs that will reinvent soldiers’ uniforms, turning them into high tech gear that rivals the best science fiction.
Among the capabilities of the futuristic fabrics: morphing to improve camouflage, stiffening to splint broken limbs, and storing energy that can be tapped later to increase the wearer’s strength.

Fabrics woven with nanoscale hollow fibers could be filled with an existing technology called a ferrofluid, which contains magnetic particles. Exposing ferrofluid to an external magnetic field can cause it to align in rows, forming a stiff gel. This property can be used to create a “splint on-demand.”

Also in the arsenal: interweaving existing organic polymers that change the way they reflect light in response to mechanical strains or applied electric fields. Combined with a micromechanical sensor array, these can be used to reproduce the light that would pass through if the soldier were not there. The effect is near invisibility.

In addition, artificial muscles being developed at MIT could utilize mechanical stresses to store energy, capacitor-style. The energy could be used as a power source for a “technofied” suite, or tapped to augment a soldier’s physical strength.

Ned Thomas of MIT’s Department of Materials Science, theorizes, “You might be able to store power when you run and then use it to jump over a wall.”