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MIT Wins $50 Million Grant From Army

By Kevin R. Lang


The U.S. Army chose MIT Wednesday to develop military applications for nanotechnology with a $50 million grant to found the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

MIT will collaborate with the Army, DuPont, Raytheon, and Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals to develop nanomaterials for soldiers designed to “heal them, shield them, and protect them against chemical and biological warfare,” according to MIT. Edwin L. Thomas, a professor in materials science and engineering, will serve as director of the new institute.

Nanomaterials key to ‘battle suit’

The focus of research at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies will be a new “battle suit” for special forces, Thomas said. Due to the inherently high cost of the suit, “not everybody in the army would have one,” Thomas said. “You don’t need to make this thing mass-produced for millions of people.”

However, he said that the high cost was easily outweighed by the increased ability to save soldiers’ lives in combat, especially considering high costs of training special forces.

“Human life is irreplaceable,” he said. “You can’t put a cost on it.” “The whole thing is soldier survivability -- soldier protection,” he said. In addition, the project will focus on “making the suit try to heal you or at least sustain you until you get to a hospital.”

Nanotechnology would allow material properties to be combined in ways not possible with conventional materials.

“You get properties that are unusual, unprecedented, and can be combined,” Thomas said. He said different fibers could be used to carry fluids, emit signals, or change shape all in the same piece of clothing, while remaining lightweight.

“It’s feasible to imagine making this battle suit have all kinds of functions,” he said.

Thomas gave the example of hollow fibers containing ferrofluids, low viscosity liquids with magnetic nanoparticles. He said that while a soldier was wearing the suit it could be flexible like normal fabric, but an applied magnetic field would line up the nanoparticles to create strings within the hollow fibers, essentially turning the fluid into a solid.

“If you knew there was a blast or incoming artillery,” Thomas said, the material could be changed in preparation. After the danger had passed, the material could be “turned off” and returned to normal.

In addition, such a material could serve as an on-demand splint, Thomas said. “Being able to immobilize would be terrific.”

Thomas stressed that the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies is not developing weapons systems, but rather defensive technologies that may have applications for police and fire departments in addition to the military. “We’re not working on weapons,” Thomas said. “We’re not trying to do anything offensive.”

All research conducted through the institute is to be unclassified, according to MIT.

Battle suit a ‘vision’

While many of the technologies behind the battle suit system are already being researched at MIT, Thomas stressed that “this soldier suit is a vision thing.” However, he said “aspects of it will appear sporadically, some of it very early on.”

Thomas described the program as ambitious. “I’ve been asked a couple times, ‘Isn’t this just science fiction, Professor Thomas?’”

According to the Army, research will focus on six main projects: Energy Absorbing Materials; Mechanically Active Materials, Devices and Exoskeletons; Signature and Detection Management; Biomaterials and Nanodevices for Soldier Medical Technology; Processing and Characterization of Nanomaterials; and Modeling.

Additional funding possible

In addition to the initial $50 million in funding, Thomas said the Army may sponsor an additional $20 million to be administered through MIT for developing technologies with outside companies.

“[The additional money] could be higher,” Thomas said. If the research meets Army expectations, Thomas said an additional five years’ funding might be possible. “This is exactly the kind of research that needs to be done,” he said.

According to the Army, “it expected that follow-on contracts will be awarded to MIT ...” if the Army considers the research to be relevant and “technically successful.”

MIT is matching 25 percent of the Army’s $50 million funding, Thomas said, for an additional $12.5 million in research funds. “MIT is making a big commitment here,” he said.

Faculty drawn from across MIT

Researchers for the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies are being drawn from nine different departments in the schools of science and engineering. Currently, 35 faculty have participated in the proposal. The institute is expected to be staffed by up to 150 people, plus 80 graduate students and 20 postdoctoral associates.

Thomas said that while the new initiative does not specifically create more faculty positions, he expected that “this center will help attract some more faculty to MIT.” With the high level of funding for equipment and research, Thomas said he expected the institute to grow in the future.

“We’re expecting to add faculty to this, maybe get it up to 50 at steady state,” he said.

MIT is still negotiating where to allocate the space for labs, but Thomas said he expected an announcement next week for the 25,000 square feet of research space the institute is expected to receive.

MIT chosen over other schools

Although the Army is not officially releasing the schools which made proposals for funding, Cornell University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute made their bids public, and CalTech and Northwestern University were reported to be competing as well.

Thomas said the Army would disclose the full list after May 1, when funding is scheduled to begin.

“Officially, the army’s not acknowledging any schools that sent in a proposal,” Thomas said.

Thomas said he thought MIT’s history of turning advanced research into real-world results gave the Institute the advantage.

“We’re world-class if you think about science and technology,” Thomas said. “Technology is our name, and we’ve got some of the best faculty and best and brightest students.”

He said MIT’s relationship with industrial partners also helped, since MIT’s partners were actively involved in writing the proposal, in addition to contributing additional millions of dollars in research funding.

“We wanted partners to be integrated in the centers and committed to doing something,” he said. “I think the Army was impressed as hell with our science and with our teams and the people we had selected.”