The NATO Advanced Study Institute on defense textiles offered a collaborative platform for advancing science and technology for peace and security.
By Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar
Croatia celebrated its first anniversary as a NATO member by hosting a two-week workshop April 6–16 in Split, Croatia: the NATO Advanced Study Institute (ASI), Defense Related Intelligent Textiles and Clothing for Ballistic and NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) Protection. The conference received the support of NATO under the auspices of the Science for Peace and Security Program. Prof. Paul Kiekens of the Department of Textiles, Ghent University, Belgium, lead the effort to secure NATO support; he and Dr. René Rossi of EMPA, the Laboratory for Protection and Physiology, Switzerland, served as co-directors of the workshop. Professor Ana Marija Grancaric of the University of Zagreb, Croatia, served as the local organizer.
The overall theme: to present state-of-the-art developments in ballistic, chemical, biological and nuclear protection using textile structures. The workshop gave attendees the opportunity to review current and future ideas on how textile structures might be used to combat terrorism, offering detailed lectures, posters and product displays of chemical and biological protective suits, ballistic shields, smart and wearable electronic textiles and instrumentation. Participants from 18 countries made it a continental affair for three: North America, Africa and Europe.
The workshop focused on four main themes:
- chemical, biological and radiological protection
- ballistic protection
- comfort and fit
- the soldier system concept
An important part of the mission of the NATO workshops was to foster detailed technological discussions and partnerships across national borders.
Smart textiles for CBR protection
Technical sessions began with a presentation on the “Nanosecure” project by Dr. H. A. Mayer of Abeil-Nosoco of France. The Nanosecure project is funded predominantly by the European Commission, and is aimed at small- and medium-scale enterprises for developing sensors using nanotechnology and catalytic materials for sensing and detoxifying harmful substances in public spaces, airports and hospitals, for example. The project is working to develop technologies to mitigate explosives as well. (The European Commission has provided 5.2 million euro; the total cost of the four-year project is 8.92 million euro.) Universities and companies from nine different countries are engaged in the project. As an example, one technology called the “bubble machine” has evolved from Dr. Mayer’s collaborative research, which can be used to collect and amplify bacteria from air; amplification of microorganisms helps to evaluate virulence and develop counteracting capabilities and therapeutics.
Dr. Eugene Wilusz of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center, Natick, Mass., gave an overview on chemical protection and the army’s current activities in this area. The U.S. Army’s research and development projects are geared towards treating the warfighter as a system, rather than as an individual. The mission is to maximize the warfighter’s survivability, mobility, combat effectiveness and quality of life in war theaters. His presentation focused on the current JSLIST chemical suit and the Self Contained Toxic Environment Protection Outfit (STEPO). STEPOs provide four hours of protection against chem-bio agents and rocket fuels. Dr. Wilusz emphasized the need to develop protective materials against Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs); the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is currently interested in developing counteracting materials against these unconventional threat agents.
His presentation organized chemical protective suits into four categories: permeable, semi-permeable, selectively permeable and impermeable. Dr. Wilusz emphasized the development of new materials that can be used across program areas such as individual protection, collective protection and hazard mitigation. Areas of particular interest to the U.S. Army include reticular chemistry for developing 3D structures to capture toxins in a box, nanofibers for filtration and self-detoxifying materials, superhydrophobic surfaces, phase change and switchable materials
Remediation and communication
In my own presentation, I offered a demonstration of the adsorption and absorption characteristics of the Fibertect® nonwoven dry decontamination wipe, research that fits well with the hazard mitigation program of the U.S. DOD. The patented technology is manufactured by Waco, Texas-based Hobbs Bonded Fibers, and marketed by First Line Technology of Chantilly, Va. Fibertect is also becoming useful in absorbing oil, and is being discussed as one remedy for the Gulf of Mexico spill.
Professor L. Van Langenhove of the Department of Textiles, University of Ghent, Belgium, discussed European research on smart and electronic textiles for personal protection. Europe appears to be ahead of the U.S. and the rest of the world on smart textiles research. The projects are truly collaborative, involving many countries, and are aimed at technology transfer. Prof. Van Langenhove emphasized that smart textiles should perform as a sensor, actuator, data processor, energy creator and storage device. She included examples from successful European projects, such as textiles for heartbeat sensing and insulating materials using shape memory materials.
Dr. Carla Hertleer, also with the University of Ghent, discussed the transmission of signals through textiles, and its role in developing protective clothing. She focused on the ProeTex wearable textiles project, which uses textiles as antennas.
Nanotechnology applications for developing next-generation protective clothing were widely discussed. A thorough overview of the current state-of-the-art in this field relevant to textiles was presented by Prof. Kiekens, who focused on nanofibers, nanocoatings, nanoparticles and nano-intelligent textiles. He provided examples using commercially available technologies, such as those of NanoTex, and coatings from Degussa. In my second presentation, I focused on self-assembled nanofibers for chemical protection.
Prof. Grancaric presented her latest results on the use of natural zeolities for microbial and radiological protection. These zeolites were processed using a tribomechanical activation process to obtain micro-size particles that can block alpha and beta radiation. Dr. Ronald DeMeo of Miami-based Radiation Shield Technologies (RST) presented his company’s nano metal-based method to counter radiological waves. RST’s DemronTM polymeric nano composite is claimed to offer protection against chemical, biological and nuclear agents. Demron blankets are reported to have 100 percent efficiency against alpha and low beta radiations. Professor Alexandra Lobnik, University of Maribor, Slovenia, spoke about optical sensors for chemical detection.
Representatives from DSM Dyneema, The Netherlands, discussed the ballistic performance of unidirectional antiballistic materials and the ballistic performance of Dyneema at high temperatures. An interesting project supported by the European Defense Agency investigated the suitability of flax for ballistic protection: Professor Pirlot of the Royal Military Academy, Belgium, advised that flax does not have the necessary ballistic protection capabilities for military applications. However, blends of natural fibers such as flax with high- performance fibers can be considered for developing demining shields.
Protection versus comfort was a major theme: The average weight of armor (without food and ammunition) is roughly 16 kilograms. People who have interacted with soldiers in war theaters noted that soldiers are used to carrying heavy loads and naturally give priority to protection. More importantly, future research in this area should involve the development of materials that can offer protection against fragments. In the recent Iraq war, there have been many fatalities due to fragments rather than bullets.
Speakers from Canadian Defense, EMPA, Switzerland, TNO Defense and Safety, The Netherlands and the University of Alberta, Canada, discussed aspects of comfort, fit and thermal protection in detail. Dr. W. Lotens of TNO Defense and Safety, The Netherlands, noted the recent military philosophy of treating a soldier as a system, and focusing on his interaction with his team. Next-generation clothing R&D will have to accommodate this new concept. Professor Sundaresan Jayaraman, Georgia Institute of Technology, discussed the interactive, intelligent individual protection system (i-IIPS), with a design based on:
- degree of protection required
21st century personal protective clothing
Major points from the conference include:
- Clothing for warfighters of the 21st century should be integrated with gadgets and sensors that can counter chemical, biological, radiological and ballistic threats.
- The soldier should be considered as part of a system who interacts with his team.
- Protective clothing should be smart and lightweight to enhance warfighter performance.
- Protective clothing should be able to sense threats and shield the soldiers from them.
The NATO Advanced Study Institute on defense textiles brought together leading experts and stakeholders from many NATO countries (and a few non-NATO countries such as Finland) into a collaborative platform for advancing science and technology for peace and security. Professional relationships were formed that will lead to many collaborative projects across the Atlantic. The conference ended eventfully, with the eruption of the Iceland volcano shutting the airways in northern Europe; many participants sealed friendships during the sometimes stressful road trips they took to get home.