How ‘Second Skin’ Suits Will Protect Future Soldiers from Dirty Weapons
US Marines wearing MOPP-4 gear in Northern Kuwait during the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

How ‘Second Skin’ Suits Will Protect Future Soldiers from Dirty Weapons

Protective gear worn by chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense specialists in the US military just got a lot smarter.
August 12, 2016, 1:50pm

As a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defense specialist in the United States Marine Corps, Corporal Cody Tankersley has spent over 1,000 hours wearing specialized gear designed to protect him from biological and chemical threats. And it's miserable.

"It's very physically demanding even to simply exist while in a MOPP [mission oriented protective posture] suit," Tankersley said. "There have been several times that killing someone who was making my or other people's lives difficult while in MOPP suits has crossed my mind. Like, legit rage and contemplation of taking my rifle and butt stroking the person to death."

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According to Tankersley, 25, who has worked in CBRN for the past seven years, spending prolonged periods of time in the suit not only makes soldiers delirious with exhaustion and heat-stress. It can also bring on "a feeling of doom or panic" that can be difficult to shake.

MOPP is the current set of military gear offering protection against biochemical hazards. The US Department of Defense hopes to eventually replace MOPP, along with the rest of military uniform wear, with "smart uniforms." The idea of military smart uniforms—technologically-augmented combat gear that enhances the capabilities of soldiers—is nothing new, and the US government has a long history of funding research in the field. In the last ten years, we've seen inquiries into sunglasses that will provide real-time mission data to soldiers and medical sensors in uniforms that will detect wounds. Right now, scientists from the University of Central Florida are developing tents that capture solar energy and uniforms that can detect the unseen infrared beams of enemy snipers.

But while the race for the next evolution of military uniforms is serious business, most of it has remained theoretical. At the very least, when it comes to MOPP gear, Tankersley claimed the military has really only focused on making face masks more comfortable.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are hoping to change that. They've taken a pivotal step forward by successfully creating a "second skin" material that could actively protect soldiers from biological and chemical threats. In 2012, the Department of Defense's Threat Reduction Agency solicited proposals for this project, which they referred to as Dynamic Multifunctional Materials for a Second Skin [D(MS)²]. The DoD could not be reached for comment, but was quite specific in the proposal about what it wanted (emphasis mine):

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The material should be able to switch between a benign state corresponding to a no or low-threat environment and an altered protective state corresponding to a moderate to high-threat environment. …. The response should be discretized; in other words the response should only be activated where it is needed. All stable states should be regulated solely by the dynamic material and not an external control system. In this way dynamic multifunctional materials should be embedded to form a smart system: a sensitive, responsive, multi-stable system that can continuously adapt to meet performance needs….

In other words, when the soldier is in a safe environment, the material feels like normal clothing. When the suit comes into contact with contaminants, it "activates" and offers protection from the threat. The team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory succeeded in creating this material by threading it with millions of carbon nanotube pores, tiny tubes less than 5 nanometers wide—that's 5,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The "second skin" material has single-walled carbon nanotube pores, which are too small for biological threats to pass through and which repel smaller chemical threats. Image: Ryan Chen/LLNL

This new material offers protection in two ways:

Biological threats are typically larger than 10 nanometers (anthrax spores, for example, are often about one thousand times larger) and as such are simply too big to fit through the carbon nanotube pores, with or without a smart response.

Chemical threats, on the other hand, are small enough to pass through the nanotubes, but the nanotube pores contain a polymeric material that reacts on a molecular level to chemical agents. When a chemical threat interacts with a pore, that pore closes.

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Most importantly, it's lightweight and breathable.

"The traditional approach in the development of protective fabrics did not really include the concept of smart, responsive materials," explained Dr. Francesco Fornasiero, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's principal investigator for the project. "Protection was/is typically achieved with a static mechanism (impermeable materials, non-wetting materials), and almost always sacrifices breathability, which greatly limits the time you can wear a protective suit because your body overheats."

It's difficult to understate the burden extreme conditions can put on a soldier in the field, and the National Research Council specifically points to prolonged physical discomfort as detrimental to both physical performance and situational awareness in soldiers. Soldiers face very real and direct threats to their existence regularly, but what often gets overlooked by those outside of the military is the baseline level of hardship that accompanies deployment. Psychological and emotional hardships aside, soldiers on the ground are in a virtually constant state of enduring physical discomfort and exhaustion.

"It's like being inside a condom in the Amazon forest but the only one getting fucked is the poor schmuck wearing it."

Tankersley wasn't the only soldier I spoke with who agreed with Fornasiero's assertion that wearing MOPP increases their overall burden, and as such their reactions to the possibility of next-generation uniforms were positive. Another serviceman from 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, described MOPP gear as a constant part of life for 40 days during the initial stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"Our version of a shower was nothing but baby wipes in the armpit, face, crotch, and feet," he told me. "That's all we could do during the convoy toward Baghdad. We were wearing [MOPP gear], of course, because the intelligence we had on Saddam's army indicated they might possess biological or chemical weapons, which the MOPP gear is designed to protect against. It was a pretty terrifying ordeal."

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And he's talking about MOPP Level 1, which is only a set of overgarments (called JSLIST) worn over the uniform. Soldiers working in contaminated environments may don gear up to MOPP Level 4, which includes the JSLIST suit, boots, gloves, and a mask. Tankersley described wearing the full Level 4 loadout as something akin to spending hours in a sauna.

"They heat up to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit over what your body temperature is on a normal day," he told me. "The hottest I've ever measured in my suit was when I was working in Death Valley. The inside temp of my suit was around 146 degrees."

A disk of the highly breathable membrane that could become the key component in future military uniforms. Photo: LLNL

Heat is only part of the problem. Dexterity plummets when you're in MOPP gear, and your field of vision is drastically reduced. MOPP gloves are thick and unwieldy, making minute tasks "out of the question," according to Tankersley.

Even soldiers who don't have occasion to use MOPP would be happy for a less cumbersome alternative.

"I have my set here with me," explained Army Major Chad Ryg, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan. "We're pretty much annoyed at the weight and space it takes because we know it won't get used." But even his most memorable experience in full MOPP illustrates how much more difficult the gear makes physical tasks. "I recall one [training exercise] I did as a new lieutenant," Ryg recalled. "We were in MOPP 4 doing an exercise where someone was wounded. I did a buddy carry and damn near passed out."

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Marine Corps Sergeant Andrew Wark put it more poetically: "It's like being inside a condom in the Amazon forest but the only one getting fucked is the poor schmuck wearing it."

Second skin material in and of itself isn't going to change the landscape of warfare, but it represents progress toward loadouts that not only make soldiers safer and better at their jobs, but also decrease the mundane daily burdens they have to endure.

These soldiers aren't likely to see second skin suits in their careers, as the scope of the LLNL team's project is only to create a working prototype of the smart material, not an entire uniform. For a full uniform to be developed and put into use, a broader set of considerations must be taken into account: How resistant to tearing are the uniforms? How expensive are they to manufacture? How easy are they to launder?

And it's likely that tomorrow's smart military uniforms won't be made entirely of second skin, either. Fornasiero pointed out that if several different D(MS)² options are available to the DoD with a different mix of properties, it's possible that suits may be made from a mixture of these smart materials—elbows and knees, for example, may require more stretchable materials than the torso and neck areas.

Even if next-generation MOPP overgarments looked much like their modern counterparts but only featured small areas of second skin materials, that may significantly reduce the physical discomfort of wearing them for prolonged periods of time. Upgraded gloves alone would increase the ability of MOPP-suited soldiers to perform dexterity-intensive tasks.

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While it's the DoD funding this research on next-generation clothing materials, second skin and similar technologies may have an impact on the civilian sector as well. There is a long and rich history of military funding driving technological development that carries over into general use. Jet engines, digital photography, and the internet all have their roots in military projects, to name only a few.

"A perfect example is the protection of medical personnel during the Ebola crisis," said Fornasiero. "First responders in general would benefit from these kinds of materials." He added that other potential uses extend to protection of industrial workers dealing with highly toxic chemicals or personnel involved in clean-up missions.

In the final analysis, the creation of second skin material in and of itself isn't going to change the landscape of warfare, but it represents progress toward loadouts that not only make soldiers safer and better at their jobs, but also decrease the mundane daily burdens they have to endure, which in turn will improve their performance and quality of life.

Tankersly said that an expectation of hardship comes with joining the military comes, but put it this way: "Imagine working your job inside a suit that limits your visibility and dexterity that's 120+ degrees inside. Except, whatever task you normally do, you now need to do it handling some of the deadliest chemicals known to man, and if you fuck it up, you can die."

Until smart uniforms find their way into the rank and file, the military personnel of the world will do what they always do: soldier on.