A team of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, Calif.) scientists has created a novel carbon nanotube (CNT) composite material that makes uniforms breathable and could protect soldiers from biological and chemical agents.

As LLNL explains, high breathability helps make protective clothing prevent heat stress and exhaustion when military personnel are engaged in missions in contaminated environments.

“Current protective military uniforms are based on heavyweight full-barrier protection or permeable adsorptive protective garments that cannot meet the critical demand of simultaneous high comfort and protection, and provide a passive rather than active response to an environmental threat,” the laboratory says.

To make the material, the LLNL team created flexible polymeric membranes with aligned carbon nanotube channels as pores. These membranes provide protection from biological agents due to their very small pore size — less than 5 nanometers (nm) wide. LLNL says biological threats like bacteria or viruses are much larger and typically more than 10-nm in size. That way, water vapor, can easily escape while bacteria are too big to get in.

“The material will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment,” said Kuang Jen Wu, leader of LLNL’s Biosecurity & Biosciences Group. “In this way, the fabric will be able to block chemical agents.”

According to the laboratory, the new uniforms could be deployed in the field in less than 10 years. The next step is reducing the material’s transition period between being breathable and protective.

“The goal of this science and technology program is to develop a focused, innovative technological solution for future chemical biological defense protective clothing,” said Tracee Whitfield, the DTRA science and technology manager for the Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program. “Swatch-level evaluations will occur in early 2018 to demonstrate the concept of ‘second skin,’ a major milestone that is a key step in the maturation of this technology.”