The U.S. Army tells the textile industry exactly what it wants in the next generation of clothing, gear and structures.
By Sigrid Tornquist
Fiber reinforced, insect repellent, modular, ergonomic, chemical resistant, paper thin but super tough, omniphobic. These are some of the properties the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) is seeking to incorporate into the textiles that protect its soldiers. And where is the military turning for ideas? It is putting out the call to the textile industry.
From contracting with individual companies to research and develop a viable concept to field-testing and purchasing an already mature product—the military wants to tap into possible solutions from industry players who have the expertise and vision to improve textiles that will keep its soldiers safe.
What does the military most urgently want from the textile industry? “Priorities are determined by a number of factors, especially the threats currently being encountered and those that are anticipated in the future,” says Dr. Eugene Wilusz, senior nuclear, biological and chemical scientist in the Warfighter Directorate, U.S. Army’s NSRDEC, Natick, Mass.
“Threats come from a variety of weapons, but other factors such as extreme environments, including heat and cold, can also threaten the well-being of an individual,” Wilusz says. He cites lightweight materials with ballistic and blast protection and low-cost, flame-resistant materials as priorities, as well as improved uniforms for jungle and arctic environments.
“All of the military’s textile needs are important and I can’t say one is more than any other,” says Carole Winterhalter, textile technologist for NSRDEC. “If any organization has an idea for a technology that could enhance or solve some of the problems we’ve identified, they should contact us.”
To that end, the NSRDEC hosted the Textile Science & Technology Industry Day in June 2014, where it spelled out some of its needs, including improved blast protection, antimicrobial and insect repellent textiles, new and advanced closure systems, and protective coatings, as well as the next generation of shelter and tent-skin textiles, and insulating textiles for shelters.
Every piece of armor that soldiers wear, with the exception of eye protection, contains a textile component. Advanced textiles play an important role in blast protection, but the Army is still looking for a lighter weight, modular, scalable and tailorable suite of equipment that provides required levels of protection without hindering mobility or mission effectiveness.
Blast protection systems that provide the most protection currently are bulky, hinder movement and cause soldier fatigue. The Army has set the near-term goal (one to five years) of a 10 percent reduction in armor weight for current threats and improved ergonomic design concepts. Its mid-term (six to 10 years) and long-term (11 to 15 years) goals are to continue to improve weight reduction and ergonomic design.
Among the military’s goals is to develop insect-resistant textiles for military clothing and ancillary equipment that protect soldiers from vector-borne disease using nonchemical and nontoxic textile systems. (Vector-borne disease refers to illnesses caused by infectious microbes transmitted to people by mosquitoes, bedbugs and other arthropods.)
Novel textile structures with inherent insect resistant properties—including thick spacer fabric, tortuous nonwoven fabric and fabrics with densely woven pore size—would improve military clothing and equipment and reduce or eliminate the need for potentially harmful pesticides or repellents to protect soldiers in tropical climates.
In addition to vector protection, the Army is looking to develop tropical material solutions that balance needs for durability, comfort and breathability, moisture management, ultraviolet protection, antimicrobial protection, antistatic and no-melt, no-drip properties.
The weakest link
A soldier’s chemical, bomb and body armor suit is only as strong as its weakest link—those interfaces between jackets, hoods, respirators, gloves and boots that are connected by zippers, Velcro® or elasticized material. “Better seals and better protection are the goal,” Wilusz says, “but they still have to be easy to operate. In the chemical suit, the seal where the respirator meets the jacket is quite challenging.”
New closure systems should rely on state-of-the-art material technologies, such as polymer technology development, extrusion processes or other innovations. The closure systems should also be adapted to current and future clothing systems, individual protection and related equipage, and be fully operational under all environmental conditions, such as extreme cold, heat, mud, sand, and ultraviolet and infrared light. They should be easy to operate using a single hand, all under the demanding conditions that a typical uniform or end product would endure, including wear and laundering.
Goals for camo
The effort to create the most effective camouflage for soldier uniforms and personal equipment is ongoing for the Army. Exactly where the Army sits with approved new camouflaged materials is a tightly guarded secret. What the Army will say is that it continues to work to evaluate camouflage in the visible, near-infrared, shortwave infrared and thermal-infrared electromagnetic spectral regions; to provide technical expertise in shade development and production support to industry and partners; and to conduct spectrophotometer correlation. (A spectrophotometer is an instrument that measures the amount of light a sample absorbs.)
Creating smart connections
Incorporating electrically conductive threads into fabrics for both garments and shelters is on the cutting edge of R&D, but connecting fibers within the textiles continues to challenge scientists. According to NSRDEC, realizing practical development cycles requires a design tool that can streamline the process of designing e-textile fabric, making the pattern, assembling the textile article and establishing the desired electrical networks.
The Army has been working to improve warmth in soldiers’ clothing, sleeping bags and blankets using adaptive insulation. It is currently evaluating different polymer combinations and cross sections and looking at batting and textile fabrication to understand production and end product considerations.
The advantages of adaptive insulation are increased temperature range with a possible reduction in the number of items needed, less user intervention, self-regulating capabilities, continuously variable insulation, improved moisture management, reduced sweating and water requirements, and reduced moisture buildup in garments.
With concepts already in place, what the Army wants from the textile industry is feedback on what it sees as the “long poles in the tent” (the things that are hardest to do and that take the longest), so it can transition into production. It is also interested in ideas for other nonclothing applications for temperature-adaptive insulation and what noninsulation applications there might be for temperature-adaptive fibers.
Chem/bio and FR protection
In the chem/bio defense arena, the military is looking to balance chemical warfare agent protection with water vapor transport and air permeability using fabric composites. The military has a handle on the science and technological structure of chem/bio protective garments, which consists of FR cover fabric treated with a liquid repellent finish, an aerosol protective liner, and a vapor protective layer next to the skin designed either to absorb vapors or prevent entry.
The reactive compounds would be placed in the fabric composite, based on maximum effectiveness. Biocidal compounds are best placed on the cover fabric and within the aerosol liner where spores are trapped. Catalysts that react with a liquid agent are best on the fabric surface; catalysts that react with agent vapor can be placed throughout.
Challenges include developing catalysts that are effective against chemical and biological agents in all climates, developing solvent systems that can be used in larger industrial scale quantities, maintaining reactivity when the catalyst is scaled up, and maintaining adherence to the fabric composite after laundering and regular wear and tear.
The Army is continuing to evaluate existing flame-resistant (FR) materials and create novel fabric finishes, coatings and fibers for FR uniforms. One specific goal is to develop and improve materials that are durable, lightweight, comfortable, flexible, cost-effective, nontoxic and environmentally benign.
On the cutting edge of textile development are durable super omniphobic textiles—those with nanoscale coatings that repel a broad range of liquids. Development of these super liquid-shedding coatings and fibers are based on the combined use of low surface-tension polymers, micro-/nano-surface roughness, reentrant nano-architecture, and the fibers’ and textiles’ physical architecture (i.e., weave opening, yarn size, fiber geometry, etc.). Textile industry experts are sought to collaborate and participate in super-omniphobic coating and fiber developments, coating applications, fabric weaving, and optimization of coating process’ conditions and specially-shaped fiber extrusion.
Creating tents and structures with the highest strength-to-weight ratio is at the top of the military’s list for shelter needs. Technology advancements have been made in the area of inflatable textiles, where high-pressure structures provide unprecedented reliability and structural capacity. The military is also looking at flexible textiles that can become rigid during and after deployment.
The military seeks assistance in manufacturing technology and processes that optimize fiber properties, orientation, coatings and laminates, while addressing end-item issues such as seaming and closure integration. The goal is for high-performance, insulated tent fabrics that are lightweight, highly flexible, durable and flame retardant, and also offer chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) protection.
The list continues
The list of what the military wants from the textile industry doesn’t end there. More opportunities are published on its Broad Agency Announcement (BAA).
But what the military really wants is for Congress to increase funding for research and development. To get any of these ideas in use to protect soldiers takes money. “It’s obvious, but it’s important to point out that whatever Congress can do to increase funding for R & D will help get new technology to the field that much faster,” Wilusz says.