High-tech camouflage could protect soldiers from ballistic heat

The heat wave that follows bomb blasts exceeds 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can cook exposed skin. New face paint that actually deflects heat could offer protection for up to a minute.

Air Force Fire and Emergency Services member Nathan Fitzwater uses camouflage and face paint in Guam in 2005. Traditional face paint can actually absorb, instead of reflect, heat. U.S. Air Force,Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

Powerful explosives from fires or roadside bombs produce two near-simultaneous blasts: first, a high-pressure blast that can cause internal injuries, and then a thermal blast that produces temps above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can literally cook skin, according to Robert Lochhead, a professor of polymer science at the University of Southern Mississippi.

He worked with chemists to engineer a high-tech camouflage paint that is waterproof; easy to apply and remove; non-irritating to the eyes, nose, and mouth; and actually reflects -- instead of absorbs, like most face paints -- intense heat.

The toughest challenge, Lochhead reported to the American Chemical Society during its 244th national meeting this week, was to accomplish all this without using mineral oil and spirits or fatty hydrocarbon substances typically used in makeup. (Hydrocarbon can actually burn when in contact with intense heat.)

So the team used silicones, which, because they absorb radiation at wavelengths outside this heat spectrum, are less flammable.

And because the military mandates that all camouflage makeup contain at least 30 percent DEET, an insect repellent that is also flammable but may actually improve the camouflaging itself, they had to encapsulate it in a hydrogel to prevent it from catching fire. "We didn't think we could do it," Lochhead said, but it worked, and has thus far passed preliminary lab tests.

In fact, the heat repellent can actually protect skin for as many as 60 seconds -- enough for a person to at least attempt to move away from a heat blast.

Lochhead says his team will also test the camouflage on other surfaces to see if it can protect materials other than human skin, including clothing and tents. They are also developing a colorless version for firefighters who don't necessarily need to camouflage up but could greatly benefit from skin protection.

 

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