The Department of the Army has selected the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop a variety of nanomaterials that will allow equipping future soldiers with uniforms and gear that can “heal them, shield them, and protect them against chemical and biological warfare.” The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), as it will be known, will receive $50 million over 5 years, with industry partners providing an additional $40 million in funds and equipment. The ISN will focus on six key soldier capabilities: threat detection, threat neutralization (such as bulletproof clothing), concealment, enhanced human performance, real-time automated medical treatment, and reducing the weight load of the fully equipped soldier from 125-140 pounds to 45 pounds.
The primary role of ISN is to support basic and applied research. These innovations will lead to an array of innovations in nanoscience and nanotechnology in a variety of survivability-related areas. They will be transferred to industrial partners for future Army requirements and eventually civilian applications. Current and future DOD-sponsored nanoscience research is expected to lead to a variety of nearterm (1-5 years) and long-term (5-15 years) advances in uniforms and equipment. These advances could include such capabilities as a semipermeable membrane with molecular-scale pores that open to allow passage of water but remain closed to other molecules. Such a membrane could be used in water filtration and purification systems or for chemical/biological protective clothing. Another possible outcome is engineering of molecular-scale rotors on a three-dimensional grid array so that they can pivot and block off high-intensity laser light—a molecular-scale Venetian blind—to protect soldier eyes from laser blinding or to act as high-speed switches in optoelectronic circuits. Nanoparticles of gold in solution, linked together by strands of DNA that are specifically encoded to respond to the DNA of biological agents, may produce reliable field detection of biological warfare agents at very low sample sizes or rapid, reliable screening for such diseases as influenza or strep throat. Materials are also sought that could react to a wound by becoming, for example, a tourniquet or to a fractured bone by becoming a hard cast.
growth and novel cancer or gene therapy strategies using nanoscale particles to deliver treatment to specific cell or gene types.
The scientific community currently recognizes the importance of nanoscale biological and biomedical research. In particular, NSF and NIH report increased numbers of proposals submitted in nano-bio areas. NSET has done a fair job of responding to this pressure and of promoting investment at the intersection of nanoscale science and technology and biology and biomedicine. For example, NIH has implemented a new interdisciplinary review system based on special emphasis panels (SEPs). SEPs are formed on an ad hoc basis to review research proposals requiring special expertise not found on any one standing review panel. The ability to convene SEPs means that interdisciplinary proposals are less likely to fall through the cracks of the NIH review system because no one standing panel can comprehend all aspects of the proposal. Nevertheless, NIH’s support of nanoscale science and technology R&D funding is small ($39 million in FY 2001) considering the size of its overall budget ($21 billion) and the potential impact that such research could have on the human condition.
NSET should examine means to increase the NNI investment in research at the intersection between nanoscale technology and biology and biomedicine. One could envision a multiagency research program in bio-nano areas for which an interagency review mechanism is established, as it may not be reasonable to expect single agencies to bear the very high cost of biobased research. Examples include research on single-molecule detection, nanofabrication processes for biocompatible materials, and novel sensors. It is clear that understanding the cell is the next major challenge in biological science. Nanoscale science and technology will be critical both to achieving this understanding and to leveraging the understanding to achieve novel nanoscale devices.
Revolutionary change will come from integrating molecular and nanoscale components into higher order structures. The integration of nanoscale components with larger-scale components and the integration of large numbers of nanoscale components with one another are challenges that need to be overcome to