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Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies opens

by Curt Biberdorf

NATICK, Mass. (Army News Service, May 28, 2003) -- The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, a joint research collaboration between the Army and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, formally opened during a ceremony in Cambridge, Mass., May 22.

Founded in March 2002 by a $50 million grant from the Army, the institute's mission is to develop technologies for advancing soldier protection and survivability, officials said, by combining basic and applied research in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Scientists and engineers will be reaching for large results from the smallest of objects. Often at the level of manipulating individual atoms and molecules, nanotechnology involves the design and production of new materials or complex devices at the nanometer scale. A nanometer is about 50,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

The research may be obtuse, but the benefits are clear, said Charles Vest, president of MIT, during the ceremony. The vision is a 21st century lightweight bulletproof and waterproof battle uniform no thicker than ordinary spandex that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically and potentially lends superhuman abilities.

"We already have the smartest soldiers. Now we're going to give them the smartest uniforms," said Claude Bolton, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, transition team director, U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (Provisional), said the importance of the new institute "cannot be overstated."

"When you look back to the Middle Ages and fast forward to today, we can't say we've come a long way," Doesburg said. "The technology that we saw today is revolutionary. What better place than this to do it."

Nanotechnology once seemed far-fetched, but new equipment and tools can already create new materials, and in coming years we'll develop new machines for nanomaterials, said Vest.

Bolton said it was only in the last 10 years that scientists were able to

actually see atoms.

"You can't do better than at the atomic level," said Richard Smalley, a professor at Rice University, who further emphasized the thought expressed by previous speakers that the benefits of the institute affect more than the military. "In all this nurturing, we may make the next new technology that leads all people to prosperity. This research will lead to other discoveries that will help the world."

Spc. Jason Ashline from the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Fort Drum, N.Y., testified to the importance of the work to be done before cutting the ribbon to open the institute. During a firefight in Afghanistan, the infantryman survived a hit to the chest from an AK-47 rifle round because of the protective body armor he was wearing.

Guests at the event were guided on tours of the Institute's 28,000 square feet of space on the fourth and fifth floors of 500 Technology Square on MIT's campus. The space consists of extensive, flexible laboratories; offices for students, visiting researchers and MIT faculty; and headquarters.

Research is currently under way in protection, performance improvement, and injury intervention and cure.

At three stations, demonstrators showed how fluids could be used to engineer a dynamic armor system that automatically changes from flexible to stiff when a ballistic threat is detected, how two separate nanoscale coatings for water resistance and microbe-killing can be combined and applied to textiles, and a method of creating artificial muscles that could provide extra strength for lifting or jumping, or serve as automatic tourniquets.

The facility contains state-of-the-art nano-fabrication and nano-characterization capabilities along with easy access to the rest of MIT's research infrastructure.

About 150 faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral research associates divided into seven research teams will apply their skills on nearly 50 research projects. Several visiting scientists from Army laboratories and participating industrial partners also will be part of the staff.

Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md.; U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center and U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, both at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.; and industry partners illustrated their roles in making an

advanced uniform system with displays at a first floor exhibit.

Roaming about the displays were soldiers wearing the latest uniforms for Objective Force Warrior and Future Warrior. Both are product concepts that will incorporate nanotechnology.

MIT was chosen as the "best of the best" universities for the institute while the industry partners will help to speed transition to the field, said A. Michael Andrews, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology/chief scientist, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army.

(Editor's note: Curt Biberdorf is with the Natick public affairs office and Sarah Underhill is a photographer at Natick.)

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