Toxic chemicals turn a new material from porous to protective

Garments covered in these thin films could block biological and chemical threats

hazmat suit

HIGH-TECH PROTECTION A newly developed, lightweight material that guards against chemical or biological contaminants could offer more comfortable protection than permanently sealed hazard suits. 

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PHOENIX — A new, breathable material that can also block biological or chemical threats could offer comfortable protection for people working in contaminated environments or dangerous military zones.

The bottom layer of the material, described April 3 at the Materials Research Society spring meeting, features carbon nanotube pores embedded within a flexible synthetic polymer film. These pores are just a few nanometers across — too small for bacterial or viral cells to squeeze through, but wide enough for sweat to escape.

The top layer offers further protection. It is made of another, spongy polymer that normally allows water and other molecules to pass through. But when the polymer comes into contact with G-series nerve agents — the family of toxic chemicals that includes sarin gas — it flattens into a dense sheet that seals over the carbon nanopores underneath. The polymer can be restored to its original state by soaking it in a high-pH chemical broth.

Both layers together are still less than half the thickness of a sheet of paper, and could be laid over fabrics without putting the wearer at risk of overheating. That’s an improvement over the typical protective gear that’s permanently sealed against contaminants, said study coauthor Francesco Fornasiero, a chemical engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

In early testing, the material completely blocked out dengue virus cells, as well as 90 percent of the chemical diethyl chlorophosphate, used as a stand-in for toxic nerve agents. The researchers are working to make the material even more impervious to dangerous chemicals, Fornasiero said.

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