The quest to create a futuristic battle suit, one micron at a time

New institute in Boston, which develops defense technologies, reflects shift in the region's economy.

Deep inside the labyrinthine hallways of the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a quiet laboratory with pristine linoleum floors, two students are hunched over a compressing machine the size of a small refrigerator.

Suddenly a loud pop pierces the air. Lauren Frick, an MIT senior, yelps, as small white shards spatter across her hand.

But it's hardly cause for concern. She and fellow researcher Benjamin Bruet are testing the strength of seashells. Their aim: to help create a futuristic "battle suit" for America's soldiers that's as thin as a scuba diver's wet suit - but fit for a superhero. Among other things, it would be bulletproof and help soldiers leap 20-foot walls.

Their work is part of a unique new venture called the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology (ISN). It's a collaboration between the US Army, MIT, defense contractors, and the medical industry.

The institute represents a fusion of realms in a city that's a national hub for big ideas in a growing number of fields. And it reflects tectonic shifts in the region's economic character.

Amid growing military spending - especially on futuristic weapons - the center of gravity for the region's defense industry is shifting from building behemoths, like ships, to high-tech research. Meanwhile, the region's biotech sector is expanding. And medical complexes dominate the Northeast landscape more than ever.

The ISN is "a very different kind of collaboration," says Andre Mayer, president of the New England Economic Project. "It isn't entirely new for some of these players. But it's a new wave and a new kind of focus."

Collaboration between the military and Boston's mega-watt academic minds is nothing new. Researchers at MIT perfected radar for military use during World War II.

But nano-technology is a whole new world. It's the science of objects far smaller than the width of a human hair.

For instance, when Ms. Frick and Mr. Bruet use scanning-electron microscopes or atomic-force microscopes to look at the seashells, they see what looks like a wall of bricks. The "bricks" are five microns long and one micron tall. (A human hair is 80 microns wide.)

Nature, they explain, has taken relatively weak materials and created a structure - the brick wall - that is impressively tough. Using nano-construction techniques, the ISN will eventually try to mimic that structure with super-strong materials, thus creating a lightweight - and bulletproof - substance.

But first ISN researchers are testing the toughness of many natural materials - everything from antlers to armadillo shells to horse hoofs.

They even tried to get dinosaur plates from Norway - but couldn't get export permits. And Bruet convinced a paleontologist in Paris to give him a prehistoric armored fish from Senegal. Bruet hand-carried it back to Boston for testing.

"We're going to try to find nature's toughest material," says Frick, a material-science major.

And these researchers are not the only ones looking. When ISN is fully staffed, it will have some 35 faculty members; 80 graduate students; and specialists from Raytheon, the DuPont chemical company, two Boston hospitals, and others.

Together, they're working on a range of projects. One would create "exo-muscles" embedded in the battle suit. These would give soldiers Spider-Man-like strength. But ISN Director Ned Thomas admits it's probably years from reality.

He tells of a recent show-and-tell session with an Army general. A nano-model - shaped like a human hand - was expanding and retracting. Scientists saw it as an impressive display of nano-mechanics. But, recalls Dr. Thomas, "The general said, 'Call me when it can crush rocks.' "

Even if scientists can create a nano-muscle, they will have to figure out how to enable it to work alongside real muscles.

Another project - which involves medical researchers - would include nano-sized bioweapons sensors. When the battle suit detected chemical weapons it would close up a system of "pores" that would keep toxins away from the soldier.

Indeed, the beauty of nano-tech, Thomas explains, is that it can include multiple functions all woven into a fabric as thin as a wet suit.

But, for now the ISN has more realistic aims. When Thomas interviewed soldiers at an Army training facility, he asked what improvements they most wanted. "They told us they wanted to waterproof everything - everything," he says.

They already lug up to 140 pounds of gear around the battlefield, he explains. When it gets wet, it's even heavier. So, one of ISN's short-term projects is a waterproof microcoating that could be applied to any material.

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