While there are already protective cover-all suits that offer protection against chemical and biological agents, it’s unrealistic to suggest that soldiers should carry such suits with them at all times, and hurriedly pull them on in the event of an attack. Instead, research teams from several institutions are developing something a little more practical – uniform fabric that automatically becomes impermeable to toxic substances, when it detects them in the area.

Under normal conditions, the material would be very breathable, allowing its wearer to stay cool. If something like poisonous gas were present, however, the pores of the fabric would respond by closing up – some degree of breathability would be maintained, although the pores would now be too small to allow the toxic molecules to pass through. Presumably, the uniforms would include some sort of hood/mask.

To make this possible, the teams are developing highly-breathable membranes, with pores composed of vertically-aligned carbon nanotubes. Those nanotube pores will allow for optimal gas exchange back and forth through the fabric, as long as no threat is present. The pores will also have a surface layer, however, that causes them to contract when exposed to chemical or biological agents.

Another option, which the researchers are also looking into, involves the fabric first trapping toxic molecules in its outer layer, and then shedding that layer like exfoliated skin.

The collaborative Dynamic Multifunctional Material for a Second Skin Program includes scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, MIT, Rutgers University, and Chasm Technologies, Inc.

They hope to have uniforms made from the material deployed in the field in less than ten years.