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Determination Leads Scientist's Drive to Develop Improved Protective Suit

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 21, 2003 – Fifteen years ago, Quoc Truong knew there had to be a better way to protect service members from chemical and biological agents.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Physical scientist Quoc Truong tests prototype chemical- biological protective gloves at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass. He said 15 years ago he knew there had to be a better way to protect service members from chemical and biological agents. Photo by Donna Miles

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The chemical/biological suit, with its built-in charcoal filter, absorbed chemical materials well enough. But it also absorbed just about anything else in the air, including moisture, gasoline and body sweat.

That meant that, once removed from its package, the suit was no longer usable after 24 hours, even if it was never exposed to contamination. In addition, the suit was bulky and awkward to wear and didn't "breathe." In temperate conditions, it was hot. In tropical and desert environments, it was downright stifling. Even the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology, the military's most modern protective suit, has most of the same drawbacks.

Truong, a physical scientist at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass., came up with the concept of a membrane that would wick moisture away from the body while keeping liquids, aerosols and agent vapors out. The membrane, he explained, would work like a colander full of cherries. Small granules of sand could pass through the holes, but the cherries would remain inside the colander.

Truong's boss told him he was crazy, that it would never work. A room full of scientists like him "suddenly went silent," Truong said, when he proposed the idea at a conference. "It felt very awkward," he admitted.

Today, nobody's laughing or giving Truong the silent treatment for thinking outside the box.

Truong's new chemical suit, which he expects to see hitting the field within the next two or three years, consists of a "selectively permeable membrane" sandwiched between a durable external shell and a liner fabric against the skin.

The membrane creates a molecular screen, Truong explained, blocking out large, organic materials such as biological and chemical warfare agents while allowing smaller agents such as moisture and perspiration to escape. It offers improved protection against highly toxic compounds because it blocks them out rather than absorbing them.

Because it allows evaporative cooling, the new suit is also more comfortable to wear, with only half the weight of the current suit. And it no longer has to be destroyed after a single use. Truong said the suit could be used for about 45 days until it's exposed to a contaminated environment. After that, he said, it would need to be either destroyed or decontaminated.

And unlike the current chemical suit, with its multiple pieces, Truong's one- piece suit has built-in boots and an attached hood that fits over the M-40A1 gas mask. It comes with gloves, although Truong is continuing to work to develop a new glove that's thinner and gives the user more dexterity.

During more than 15 limited field experiments lasting between a week and a month, service members gave the new suit the "thumbs up." "They all loved the lighter-weight materials and the wind resistance," Truong said. "The users do sweat, but the light weight adds to the perception of comfort."

So know that he's proven the naysayers wrong by developing the new suit, what's the next thing up Truong's sleeve? First, he said, he'd like to come up with a suit that decontaminates itself if it's exposed biological or chemical agents.

And ultimately, he said he wants to come up with what he admits sounds straight out of "Power Ranger": a device that the user switches on to create an invisible barrier against a contaminated environment. "I think we can do it, based on an alternative force field," Truong said. "We're not there quite yet, but I think we could be close."

And with Truong's track record, who's to say it can't be done?


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