Smart Materials: From Hypercolor to the Warfighter

Scott Aughenbaugh
Research Fellow, Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University

Some may remember the Hypercolor t-shirt of the 1990s. Made of a thermochromic material, the shirts represent an early example of a “smart material.” As the roots of the name suggest, the changes in color (chromic) occur in response to changes in temperature (thermo). Since, smart materials have evolved from a trendy fashion choice to a field with significant implications for warfighters countering emerging threats.

Smart materials are broadly defined as materials that undergo significant changes as a result of external stimuli. These responses can include changes in shape, color, and magnetization in reaction to changes in electric and magnetic fields, temperature, acidity, and light. Examples of smart materials include photomechanical materials, which change shape when exposed to light, and magnetocaloric materials that change temperature in response to a magnetic field. Some smart materials, such as piezoelectrics, exhibit “smart” properties in both directions – changing shape when a voltage is applied and producing a voltage when its shape is changed.

The development of smart materials has rapidly accelerated in recent years. This is fortunate for today’s warfighter given the increasing number and complexity of emerging challenges, which will require the proper adoption of smart materials now more than ever. With long deployments and the active use of U.S. military forces, equipment like uniforms, electronics, and other capabilities in combat are under constant stress. There is a need to produce power for, and interface with, the many wearables and displays under consideration for use by armed forces. The recent chemical weapons attacks in Syria and biotechnology advances like gene editing have highlighted the need for more advanced warning of contaminants and pathogens.

With all of these threats, the challenge of hauling more gear per soldier is looking increasingly unrealistic. While there will always be an interest in creating more portable tools, one way to address these challenges is with the development and adoption of smart materials. To highlight current and future opportunities for the military, here are a few advances that deserve consideration:

Electronic connections and communication built into clothes.

While systems like Broadsword Spine from BAE Systems provide a platform for distributing electronics, the application can be more discrete. An example of this is the Levi’s Commuter jacket, built off of Google’s Project Jacquard, which provides touch-sensitivity directly through the clothing. Alternatively, militaries could pair a material like cotton in concert with a technique called backscattering to reflect data using FM signals to other devices under their control.

Beyond Iron Man and the Terminator: the development of soft robotic applications

While there is impressive technology going into the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) that is currently in development, there are other ways to achieve enhanced soldiering without hydraulics. Researchers in Sweden have applied a conductive polymer to normal clothing to create wearable artificial muscles that could augment the physical strength of operators to easily carry otherwise burdensome equipment. Taking it a step further, researchers in the United States, partnering with the Air Force Research Lab, used a bio-inspired protein that develops rigidity using acidity, rather than electrical stimulus.

Look to nature for the next big breakthrough

Bio-inspired materials have been growing in popularity for some time. The proteins found in squid ring teeth can be used to create self-repairing fabrics and layered with enzymes to breakdown harmful environmental toxins. The “goo” from Hagfish has been studied by the Naval Surface Warfare Center for a number of applications but could also be used as “a bio-alternative to Kevlar.”

With all these new technologies and potential applications, one might wonder: what are we waiting for? The problem is likely a lack of technology literacy and the yet to be seen confirmation of product-market fit. While anyone, including, and some would say especially, military requirements writers and acquisition professionals, can speculate about potential uses for new technologies, such speculation is not particularly valuable unless these hypotheses are tested and validated. The fit of a product in a given application must be tested with potential users in the Department of Defense throughout the entire product development process if large-scale adoption is desired.

Technology transfer and open innovation are examples of ways to test such progress. In the context of technology transfer, there is clear interest from government agencies and labs like NASA to find ways to license their existing smart materials, but in some cases, the inventors have already moved onto other funded research projects. Groups like NSFs Innovation Corps and Fed Tech help inventors from federal labs to find commercial applications for their technology. As a result, a company called Grey Matter successfully spun out a technology from the Navy Research Laboratory that binds to clothing and then breaks down hazardous chemicals and causes them to evaporate, effectively creating a smart material out of any fabric.

As far as open innovation is concerned, hackathons and challenge events bring together students, entrepreneurs, and industry experts to build prototypes that address challenges in a given field. For example, MD5, a Pentagon innovation cell focused on developing the human capital element of innovation, will be hosting a hackathon in partnership with Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, where Pentagon challenge sponsors are hoping to “spin out” some new ideas.

Certainly, smart materials represent an area of emerging innovation and opportunity for the U.S. military. The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, is a few years in the development of a “second skin” program that will enable advanced chemical and biological protection. However, we must always ensure adequate steps must be taken to validate the use of these technologies with the warfighter. Otherwise, the opportunities that smart materials present to the warfighter will prove to be a passing fad, much like the Hypercolor t-shirt. 

The Author is Scott Aughenbaugh

Scott Aughenbaugh is a Research Fellow with the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University and Director of External Engagement for MD5, the National Security Technology Accelerator. His research covers emerging technology trends, innovation, security strategy, and long-term futures.

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