Nanotechnology holds strong promises for use in the defence industry. Current thinking is that nanotechnology can be used in two main ways by soldiers. The first is miniaturisation of existing equipment to allow it to be not only smaller, but lighter, use less energy and be more readily concealable. The second is to develop and adapt new materials for military purposes.
Although nanotechnology based military research is being done both publically and secretly by numerous agencies around the world, the most high profile organisation is the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) at MIT. ISN is looking to “pursue a long-range vision for how technology can make soldiers less vulnerable to enemy and environmental threats. The ultimate goal is to create a 21st century battlesuit that combines high-tech capabilities with light weight and comfort.”
A battlesuit such us that being developed by ISN would be required to remain lightweight and comfortable while stopping bullets, protecting against toxins, monitoring vital signs and administering first aid where possible.
Battlesuit research is still in its infancy but has already made some advancement in the fields of communications, strength and soldier protection.
Just as communications from ships at sea used to utilise coded messages transmitted by means of flashing lights specially coated polymer threads woven into the suit can allow silent communication between soldiers. The system can be tuned to different light wavelengths to prevent eavesdropping or detection by enemy units.
Polymer molecular muscle ribbons in the suit can magnify a soldiers strength by up to ten times. At present the muscles are slow to react and therefore not practical in most battlefield applications.
Kevlar is already the material of choice for protection against bullets and other ballistics and nanotechnology is being applied to further increase its functionality. Testing is underway on a shock-resistant material five times stronger than steel and more than twice as strong as any other impact-resistant material currently in use.
Protection from chemical and biological agents is being provided for with the use of special molecules called dendrimers. The dangerous chemicals stick to dendrimers and are rendered harmless.
In aerospace based defence applications the primary concern is improving strength to weight ratios. As an example, nanotechnology is being applied to aluminium to change phases and microstructure in order to make it perform like titanium – but without the weight.
High strength, corrosion resistant coatings are another military use for nanotechnology in order to improve durability, corrosion resistance and reliability. These materials can sense damage or corrosion and automatically initiate repair of some damage. The potential is also there for coatings to change colour when required. This could include adaptive camouflage for tanks moving from jungle to open fields or into urban areas.
Carbon Nanotube Composites
Further to improving strength to weight ratios, several companies are developing high strength, light weight composite materials using carbon nanotubes. Applications for these composites include aircraft wings.