California lab develops 'Second Skin' to shield against coronavirus and other biological threats

Federal researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed a breathable, protective fabric - designed to shield users by smartly responding to chemical or biological agents


                            California lab develops 'Second Skin' to shield against coronavirus and other biological threats
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The COVID-19 pandemic has most definitely put defense agencies on alert, making them reconsider the threat of sophisticated biological or chemical agents that could epitomize the next generation of modern warfare.

Federal researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed a breathable, protective fabric — which they are touting as a "second skin"— designed to shield users by smartly responding to chemical or biological agents. Scientists at the California lab joined hands with collaborators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command to create the pathbreaking material, offering a glimpse into the future of smart uniforms for the military, first responders, security agents among others.

While the project has just completed its first phase, the cutting edge fabric can already react to microscopic dangers in its contact environment autonomously. Speaking to NextGov on Friday, Francesco Fornasiero, the principal investigator leading the LLNL research, detailed the inspiration behind the revolutionary effort. “Combining breathability and protection in the same garment is very challenging, but key for their safe, extended use,” he said.

The deadly outbreak of the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, has made it abundantly clear that military and other federal officials will have no choice but to expose themselves at times to chemical threats in toxic or contaminated environments, or even biological pathogens like re-engineered viruses or bacteria. They may even have to confront something much smaller in size, including chemical agents such as sarin gas.

In such cases, officials currently rely on conventional protective gear to ensure their safety. However, Fornasiero indicates that the makeup of standard protective fabrics and absorbent layers within them mostly inhibit breathability and “the transfer of water vapor from the wearer’s body to the outside world.” 

Funded by the Chemical and Biological Technologies Department of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in the "Dynamic Multifunctional Materials for a Second Skin" — otherwise called the D[MS]2— program, the research seeks to develop next-generation clothing that can facilitate military officials with reliable protection from chemical and biological threats, at the same time offering users a level of comfort that is close to being in their own skin. Achieving both factors together is quite a challenging task.

Fornasiero and his team have worked tirelessly over the last six or so years to come up with and refine their multifunctional fabric through the first phase of the program. The details of their progress have now been published in the Advanced Functional Materials journal.

So how did Fornasiero's team achieve this pioneering (and refined) combination of protection and comfort?

According to the lab's release, the base layer of the smart fabric is made of trillions of aligned carbon nanotube pores, which are essentially “graphitic cylinders with diameters more than 5,000 times smaller than a human hair.” These nanotubes ensure breathability as they are able to transport water molecules through the interior while being small enough to block any known biological threats. On top of this layer, a "threat-responsive polymer" is grafted that is able to block even smaller chemical agents that may be able to make it through the nanotube pores. This layer is what makes the material "smart" and the dynamic chain of polymers is able to reversibly collapse when the wearer comes in contact with any dangerous chemical hazards.

“The response of the material is autonomous and local. It is triggered by the contact of the chemical threat with the polymers on the surface of the membrane,” Fornasiero explained. “The polymer chains are normally extended (or open state), but when the chemical threat reaches the material surface, the polymer chains stack together and collapse, leading to pore closure and limiting permeation of the threat across the membrane.”

According to the release, the team has met the initial project requirements of balancing comfort and defense within the same garment. Now, they are moving on to the next phase, which will enhance the suit's protection against a wider range of chemical threats as well as its stretchability. Ultimately, the objective is to achieve "a better body fit, thus more closely mimicking the human skin."

The subsequent steps of the project will take place over a span of three years, according to Fornasiero. Meanwhile, the final deployment of a smart uniform that is field-ready may take an additional five or six years. The scientist has said that in the best-case scenario, the protective military garments would be so breathable “and thus so comfortable” that they could practically be worn all the time.

“This would eliminate the problem of changing gears when you may be entering a contaminated area, as well as enable use for long operations without risking heat stress or stroke,” Fornasiero said. “Also, since the protection is autonomous, a wearer would be protected even in situations where he is unaware of the presence of a threat.”

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