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Chemical weapons may be neutralized by this nanoscale fabric

Chemical weaponry can be insidious in use and devastating in effect. A single attack can target a large population and cause widespread injuries and fatalities. This class of weaponry was banned after World War I, but of course the ban has not completely halted the use of these terrible weapons.

Because the raw material to make these weapons is easy to obtain, there has been a resurgence in the use of chemical weapons by rogue terrorist groups. To combat this growing threat, a team of researchers working at North Carolina State University are developing high-tech nanoscale fibers that trap and degrade chemical warfare agents (CWAs).

The team built its specialty fibers using metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which were shown to degrade CWAs in a series of experiments previously conducted by researchers at NC State, RTI International, and the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland. The latest round of research takes advantage of this neutralizing property of MOFs and uses it to develop fabrics that can be used in masks, filters, and other protective clothing.

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Instead of using the MOFs in their powder form, the team synthesized a thin film of MOFs that coat nano-scale fibers in a kebab-like structure. The team began by depositing a thin layer of titanium dioxide using the technique of atomic layer deposition. This nucleating layer served as the substrate for a zirconium-based MOF covering that coated the nano-fibers like “meatballs on a skewer,” said NC State researcher Junjie Zhao.

In laboratory testing with both a CWA simulant and the nerve agent soman, the researchers found that the half-life of each compound was reduced — the half-life of the CWA stimulant was slashed to 7.3 minutes and the nerve agent woman was cut to 2.3 minutes.

“This is a big step forward for materials designed for CWA protection,” says NC State senior research scholar Christopher Oldham. In the next phase of the study, researchers plan to use the fabric in field clothing in order to evaluate the durability and real-world operation of the anti-CWA fabric.

The team hopes to eventually improve the fabric so it can replace the bulky chemical suits currently worn by soldiers in areas at risk for a chemical weapons attack. This new and improved clothing would be welcome news to soldiers, enabling them in theory to shed their cumbersome chemical suits in favor of a protective outfit that fits more like athletic wear.