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MIT Tackles Nanotechnogy Research

By Benjamin P. Gleitzman
STAFF REPORTER

Researchers at MIT are at it again, this time challenging the old maxim that bigger is better. According to faculty and staff at the newly-developed Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the soldier of tomorrow will rely on materials and systems built on the nano scale.

In 2002, the U.S. Army established the ISN through a 5 year, $50 million contract with MIT devoted to research in nanomaterials and nanotechnology. Located in MIT’s Technology Square, the ISN is working with faculty and students transcending many departments to revolutionize and advance soldier protection and survivability — producing success stories along the way.

“When you get into the nano regime, that’s when properties become size dependent, and new properties begin to express themselves,” said Edwin L. Thomas, director of the ISN and professor of materials science and engineering, in a speech delivered last week at the 2005 John Wulff Memorial Lecture. During the lecture, intended to engage undergraduates, especially freshmen, Thomas stressed the importance of nanotechnology in relation to soldier capabilities. According to Thomas, “Nanotechnology provides the ultimate in miniaturization.”

Miniaturization is a key issue for soldiers in the field, who carry as much as 120 pounds of provisions and gear. While the ultimate goal of the ISN is the creation of a 21st century battlesuit, “a bullet-proof jumpsuit, no thicker than ordinary spandex, that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically, and may even lend superhuman abilities,” researchers are now working on smaller scale projects in nanocomposites and nanocoatings, or what Thomas refers to as “low-hanging nano fruit” that can be implemented in the near future.

Professor of Chemical Engineering Karen K. Gleason ’82 is working with a team researching chemical vapor deposition to create water repellent fabrics that would reduce the weight of condensed moisture on a soldier’s clothing.

In a similar vein, Robert S. Langer ScD ’74, professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, is creating “switchable surfaces” that would undergo a change in properties, such as from hydrophilic to hydrophobic, in response to an outside stimulus.

Among the many research experiments being conducted by the ISN, long-term projects such as implementation of carbon nanotubes, which exhibit extraordinary strength and unique electrical properties, have elicited much excitement from the scientific community. Thomas called the nanotube, which has multiple applications ranging from combat jackets to artificial muscles, the “poster child for nanotechnology.”

Another appealing aspect of the ISN is the Soldier Design Competition, sponsored in part by Raytheon, Boeing, and the Science Applications International Corporation. The competition, which pits students from MIT and the U.S. Military Academy against real world design issues, offers a total of $16,000 in prize money to the to six teams. SDC, now in its third year, has seen a number of success stories, including the formation of RallyPoint.

RallyPoint, a startup company composed of three MIT students and an MIT lecturer, recently received a Phase II $730,000 Small Business Innovative Research contract from the Department of Defense. Tony L. Eng ’92, Byron B. Hsu ’06, Forrest W. Liau ’06, and David D. Lin ’06 won second prize in the 2003 Soldier Design Competition under the team name Surreptiles with a sensor-embedded glove capable of recognizing various tactical hand gestures. Three of the four were sophomores at the time of the competition; their novel idea has since grown into a valuable investment for the U.S. government.

“MIT has been a fairly good environment, and our professors have been very supportive,” said Lin, who is majoring in materials science and took a semester off to co-develop RallyPoint.

“Everything you do is actually a learning experience,” said Liau, also majoring in Materials Science. “We have been through so many critical challenges that it is hard to believe it has only been two years.”

Only about four percent of small businesses that apply for the Small Business Innovative Research grant are accepted into Phase II of the program, placing the members of RallyPoint in a select group.

“We knew there were a lot of things against us,” continued Lin, “we had to deal with the issue of credibility and convince others that our product would be usable.”

RallyPoint’s founders expressed a desire to give back to the MIT community that allowed for the creation of a product that may help firefighters, police officers, and soldiers perform their duty in a more efficient manner.

Other research projects through the ISN include energy absorbing materials, chemical and biological weapons sensing and counteraction, remote systems monitoring, and innovative materials for soldier systems.

More information about the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies as well as the Soldier Design Competition can be found at http://web.mit.edu/isn/.