Even as Swager and the other researchers in the institute continue to churn out such new materials and devices, they are already thinking about what will ultimately be their biggest challenge: making all their inventions work together in a mass-producible suit. “It will be a systems and integration problem that we’ve never seen before,” Swager says.That’s where DuPont could help. The company has decades of experience developing such ultrastrong materials as Kevlar, used for bulletproof vests. Now it will help create new processes for integrating several nano materials into one textile. One problem: not all polymers are compatible. “They are not the same, and they don’t behave the same,” says Wayne Marsh, research manager at DuPont Central Research and Development in Wilmington, DE. “Some are made very differently; the same process could degrade one polymer while forming another.” Reconciling these differences will require tweaking the polymers’ chemistry or adding coatings to protect them from one another. All in all, “this is really edge’ stuff,” Thomas says. “It’s like Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments in the early 1950s, thinking about making just tens or hundreds of transistors on a single silicon chip. You have to say, How would we do that?’”
Army brass and the civilian medical community have high hopes that Thomas and his MIT colleagues will find the answer, figuring out not only how to perfect new materials and devices, but also how to weave them together with revolutionary results. But they’re realistic. “I don’t know that all of this is going to yield what I want, when I want it, and do it at an affordable price,” the army’s Andrews says.
For sure, the new institute won’t produce the full integrated combat uniform in five years. Instead, success on that time scale will mean a much lighter bullet-resistant vest or rugged “friend-or-foe” optical material, says Thomas. “One measure of success will be if we have gotten the attention and confidence of army folks to believe in using nanotech for the individual soldier,” he says. “Big success will be if we actually put something tangible in a soldier’s hands.” It won’t be easy. But given the institute’s head start on materials development, the U.S. Army has at least a fighting chance of getting the uniform it seeks.