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Late last year the U.S. Army went shopping for some new uniforms. It wasn’t interested in camouflage jumpsuits and olive drabs or even in better versions of the high-tech gear worn by the troops in Afghanistan. What the army wanted was a lightweight combat uniform capable of stopping bullets and toxins, monitoring a soldier’s health, communicating with remote commanders-even enabling superhuman strength. But despite the extravagance of that vision, and even though they were looking to academic research institutions for help, army officials made another key desire clear. As MIT materials scientist Edwin Thomas recalls, they “didn’t want just papers in Science or Nature. They wanted real stuff.”

Real stuff is exactly what MIT researchers presented last January to a visiting army team. Mechanical engineer Ian Hunter played a video of a twitching piece of black ribbon-an expanding and contracting “artificial muscle” that could, in a combat uniform, form a tourniquet or boost leg strength. Materials scientist Yoel Fink showed off some shimmering optical threads capable of reflecting and absorbing different wavelengths of light with great specificity-a property that could be exploited for remote infrared communication that might, for example, allow soldiers to silently identify themselves to allies at night. Faculty members explained the workings of a microscopic sensor MIT chemist Tim Swager had built, just a few molecules wide, that could sniff a soldier’s breath for chemical signs of stress.

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Tagged: Communications, Materials

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