Published: April 8, 2008

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has awarded the University of Colorado at Boulder $1.2 million to develop a new type of composite membrane with molecule-sized pores to protect people and facilities from airborne industrial toxins and chemical warfare agents.

The three-year grant from DTRA, an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, will be used to develop new thin-film membranes that can be incorporated into breathable suits or building filtration systems to block the entry of chemical warfare and other hazardous agents, said chemical and biological engineering department Professor Richard Noble. Breathable suits implanted with the membranes could be designed to expel materials like water vapor, sweat and carbon dioxide while repelling hazardous molecules 75,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, said Noble, principal investigator on the grant.

The membranes will be created using solvents consisting of charged salts and microscopic, inorganic particles that are blended with liquid crystal molecules, which have the ability to arrange themselves into ordered channels or pores to block particular molecules, said Noble. "These structures are completely novel and can be designed for a variety of different applications for military personnel, first responders and ordinary civilians," he said.

Noble is collaborating on the project with chemical and biological engineering Professor Douglas Gin, who has been developing a breathable, rubber suit using liquid crystal composites in collaboration with TDA Research of Wheat Ridge, Colo., for use by hazards workers.

The new "tailored" thin films under development by Noble's research team could be used in air filtration systems in buildings, implanted into clothing for chemical protection, and used as coatings on buildings and vehicles, he said. "While the direct focus here is on military applications, the end-product also could be used to protect workers in many types of on-the-job environments where they could potentially be exposed to hazardous vapors or chemicals."