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MIT, Army open nanotech center

Research at the center is geared toward creating battlefield armor for the 21st century, such as bacteria-killing materials and expanding fabrics that could be used as tourniquets.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Army formally unveiled the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, which is geared toward creating battlefield armor for the 21st century.

MIT on Thursday cut the ribbon on the nanotechnology institute, which was funded by a $50 million grant from the Army in 2002. Corporations including Dow Corning, DuPont, Raytheon and Carbon Nanotechnologies are participating in the center's development. In all, private companies have invested $40 million in the center.

The center's research can largely be characterized as chemistry in action. During a ceremony held at the university on Thursday, researchers showed off a technique for applying new types of coatings to fabrics to make them more resistant to water or capable of killing bacteria.

Other projects involve developing fabrics that will contract or expand like an accordion when exposed to electricity; these materials could potentially be used for in-field medical devices such as tourniquets.

Nanotechnology refers to the science of developing products out of components that measure 100 nanometers or less. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter). Some of the more heralded breakthroughs in nanotechnology have revolved around using carbon nanotubes and other structures to create transistors or electronic storage devices.

Large segments of the growing industry, however, are focused on coming up with new products for the life-sciences sector or chemical conglomerates. Greensboro, N.C.-based Nano-Tex, for instance, has developed synthetic materials that it says make garments stain-proof. Eddie Bauer and other retailers are already selling pants that use the company's products.

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"On a pound-for-pound basis, there seems to be more press about nanotubes than actual nanotubes produced. The reality is that the majority of nanotech products on market today are incremental improvements in unsexy industries," wrote Rob Paull, a partner in Lux Capital, a venture firm specializing in nanotechnology investments. "The truth is, the majority of nanotech deal-flow in the venture world is in materials."

The United States, Japan and Korea, among others, are funding nanotechnology research.

The MIT center focuses its research on materials and equipment to protect soldiers in the field or to provide them with medical assistance. The research falls into seven categories: energy-absorbing materials, which attenuate directed energy attacks; mechanically active materials such as artificial muscles; sensors that warn of chemical or biological intrusions; medical devices; manufacturing techniques for nanomaterials; nanomaterial integration; and modeling and simulation.

"This lab opening offers the Army new assets in soldier survival, which is the most powerful and patriotic objective any partnership can aspire to achieve for America," said Michael Andrews, deputy assistant secretary for research and technology in the U.S. Army's research division, in a statement.

MIT and the military go way back. The two worked together on radar technology during World War II and later developed missile guidance systems.