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Nanotech's call to arms

Flush with a $50 million federal grant to create an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, Ned Thomas plans to tap this esoteric science to clothe a breed of warriors "endowed with superhuman capabilities."

6 min read
Ask him to predict what sorts of radical technologies might emanate from the newly founded Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and Ned Thomas regales a listener with tales about sleeves that can morph into casts and soldiers who can clear 20-foot walls with a single jump.

His near-term ambitions are more modest, but Thomas, the recently appointed director of the ISN, expects the institute to start turning out practical applications of nanotechnology within a year.

A professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Thomas has been the subject of a flurry of press attention since plans for the ISN were announced earlier this month.

Nanotechnology, the science of building things on a miniscule, molecular scale, has received an inordinate amount of attention in connection with heightened fears of chemical and biological warfare. Aside from the $50 million deal with MIT to create the ISN, the federal government has also increased its spending on technology overall for national defense after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

MIT has committed itself to developing an "exoskeleton" for soldiers, along with protective gear that deflects bullets. It also expects to create clothing that can shield against chemical and biological agents and even "heal" an injured wearer.

The project will include approximately 150 people, including 35 MIT professors, specialists from the Army, DuPont and Raytheon, and a team of doctors from the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology.

CNET News.com recently caught up with Thomas to get his take on developments in this still-esoteric subject and how he thinks applications of nanotechnology may impact the armed services in the near future.

Q: How long have you been working in what is now known as nanotechnology?
A: I was in it long before it was called nanotech, back in my college days at Cornell University. Now it has become such a popular area. The word "nanotech" is a better way to get funded, to attract research money and graduate students. People want to work on a technology that has real-world applications, not just discover the wonders of nature. MIT is perceived as a place where companies are spun out and IP (intellectual property) is developed and licensed.

"Threats keep changing. People say, 'Well, we've tried to solve these problems before.' But not with nanotechnology."
Do you think the popularity of nanotech has anything to do with the government grant for the ISN?
Partly. Fifty-million dollars, even at MIT, is a lot of money. Most of the faculty have always had government funding--Department of Defense funding--and industry money, too. Raytheon and DuPont are both industrial partners, as are the Massachusetts General/Brigham and Women's Hospitals, though I know it's strange to think of hospitals as an industry.

How important is nanotechnology to the government's defense program and, specifically, to the perceived threat of biological and chemical warfare?
They've actually been dealing with these threats for a long time, but now we're looking for a better solution--something more versatile. Threats keep changing. People say, "Well, we've tried to solve these problems before." But not with nanotechnology. If you put protective chemical gear on soldiers, their mobility decreases dramatically. That's all right for chemical inspections and decontamination, but suppose you're out on the battlefield. The nanotech advantage is that you can fit a lot of stuff into a small space, make things more lightweight and compact.

But on the nano scale, the actual properties of things also change--isn't that how you're going to make things like self-forming casts and "exoskeletons?"
To me, the most important thing--on the nano scale--is that properties are scale-dependent below a certain link scale. As you make the material smaller and smaller, its properties start to change in every respect: optical, physical and so on. In previous history, no one has ever done this. There is a rich set of discoveries to be made.

How soon are we actually going to see the kind of technology you mentioned in the press release about the ISN--things like healing uniforms and the ability to jump over 20-foot walls?
A lot of futuristic things were mentioned there. The reason is twofold: The press is always interested in more far-out, visionary applications. They want to know what the most incredible thing is we'll be able to do 10 or 20 years from now. The other thing is that if you set yourself high goals, you're going to go further.

Twenty feet is a big jump--maybe that was an exaggeration. (Thomas explained in a news conference reported by MIT News that the leaping ability would come from "building up energy storage in shoes," and said that MIT researchers have already created "world-record actuator materials" that outperform human muscles.)

Is there any technology you'll be able to implement in the next six months to a year?
In six months, based on what people are already doing, I think we'll be able to implement a few technologies. One of these is medical monitoring; they have sensors that can remotely monitor a patient's condition and send the information to a database over the Internet. There are two hospitals already doing a lot of that. Within one year, we should be able to implement that kind of technology into Army uniforms.

Aside from the psychological impact, which you mentioned in the press release, will there be any offensive uses for nanotechnology?
This is about the survivability of soldiers. It's all defensive, and can be applied to police forces and the general public. If the firefighters that walked into the World Trade Center had had remote sensors, things could have gone quite differently. I don't imagine a university would ever want to work on offensive technologies.

"This is about the survivability of soldiers...If the firefighters that walked into the World Trade Center had had remote sensors, things could have gone quite differently."
Are there any subcutaneous nanotech applications being developed--something that will actually be inside the soldier? For example, this week, Small Times Media reported that Applied Digital Solutions is developing an implantable sensor that would be able to transmit someone's location, pulse, body temperature and other information. A lot of people in South America have supposedly expressed interest in it because of the high number of kidnappings there.

There are several teams within the ISN. One has a biomedical focus and, of course, we need to be able to sense things internally, but we also want to know what's going on the outside too--in terms of chemicals and temperature.

Are the technologies you're working on likely to affect all soldiers, or is this something that would only be for certain elite forces? Are there any ethical implications to worry about?
These will be special-operations people. These things are going to be on a voluntary basis. I would opt for having a location sensor implanted in me rather than not. Is this ever going to reach an Orwellian level? No, the United States would never go there. Everything we're doing here is unclassified--it's going to be general knowledge.

All universities pretty much have to do unclassified research. If you're doing classified research, it has to go on in a specialized facility, with special security measures. Also, a lot of students are working on these projects as part of their theses, which need to be published. If they couldn't make the material public, they couldn't get their degree.

Aren't there any concerns about U.S. enemies developing similar technology, or are the barriers to entry too high because nanotechnology is so complex?
As far as I know, only governments in Germany and Japan are working on similar applications for the military. Also, we plan to make specific uniforms designed for individual soldiers, so if (the uniform is) taken off, it will be useless to enemies, because, say, it can only be activated by that soldier's DNA.

I understand your daughter did the interpretive drawing of the soldiers' uniform you're working on, just based on your comments. Are there that few protocols for how these outfits are going to look?
Yes. She did it in a couple of days, and was just trying to illustrate what I had been describing to her. Most of the other illustrations the army has are just artistic interpretations; it's their own personal vision.