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Nanotechnology: military technology the size of a molecule

The US Department of Defense spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year in order to complete the nanotechnology revolution before the next war

Nanoscale materials and components, including some of the smallest products ever produced, have already reached the communication systems and weapons used in the war in Iraq. But the role of nanotechnology is still so limited, that most likely the war in Iraq will be remembered as the last war in which this technology was not used, and not as the first war in which it was fully used. "Most of the really significant materials are still in the research phase," said James Allenbogen, a nanotechnology expert at Miter, one of the leading companies providing consulting services to the Pentagon.

The US Department of Defense shows a huge interest in the field of nanotechnology, named after the nanometer - the billionth part of a meter, the size of a small molecule. The ministry has been supporting research in the field for more than two decades, and is expected to invest about 243 million dollars in it in the current fiscal year. The total federal budget for research and development of nanotechnology products during this period is 774 million dollars.

The strength of nanotechnology lies in the fact that common materials such as carbon - when examined at the nanometer level - sometimes exhibit unexpected properties, such as great strength. Dr. Clifford Law, of the Defense Department's Office of Basic Research, said that nanotechnology will eventually change the weapons of war more than the invention of gunpowder. It will affect all aspects of weapons, communications and soldiers' welfare.

Dr. Edwin Thomas, director of the Institute for Military Nanotechnology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said that the most dramatic visions of nanotechnology may be realized within a generation. One of these visions is the army's dream of using nanoscale materials to create uniforms that are waterproof, lightweight and capable of being tougher than armor steel. Achieving less ambitious goals - such as the production of portable devices capable of quickly locating and identifying a wide variety of chemical and biological weapons - may be ready for operational use within two years.

The US Army dedicated 50 million dollars, in a budget spread over five years, to development at MIT, and the same amount will be provided in cash and other means by the Institute of Technology and other industrial entities. Thomas said that ideally the uniform would include "nanomaterials" that could be used as external support muscles for the soldier, with tiny sensors to monitor his health.

Not all nanotechnology is so futuristic. The US Navy, for example, has already started using a coating material developed by nanotechnological means. According to the developer, the "Inframat" company, the material is used to coat the pipes of steam boilers in ships, and parts of the propulsion mechanism in minefields.

Military research has long been devoting a considerable portion of its activity to coating materials, due to the extreme conditions that ships, aircraft and ground combat equipment often encounter. Dr. David Reisner, CEO of Inframat, said that "Nanox", the aluminum-titanium compound produced by the company, consists of grains with a width of 10 to 40 nanometers that spread when the material is sprayed on a surface. According to him, the compound is more flexible and durable than normal coatings, whose particles are up to a hundred times larger.
Reisner added that the compound is more resistant to heat than normal coatings and can significantly extend the life of industrial turbines and aircraft engines.

Another nanometer product was purchased by the Ministry of Defense as an additive to rocket fuel, containing iron oxide particles only three nanometers wide. The compound, produced by a privately owned company called "Mach-1," is merely a microscopic form of rust. It is used as a catalyst to turn solid propellants into gases, which burn when the rocket is launched. Its tiny size gives it greater responsiveness than normal iron oxide catalysts, and this enables a faster conversion of the propellants and an increase in the speed and range of the missiles.

The most ambitious dreams of nanotechnology are related to computational power. Many military experts foresee the development of huge and flexible networks of tiny sensors, which will serve as non-intrusive surveillance systems. These systems, in addition to their ability to detect chemical attacks, will also be able to respond to such attacks in a way that will allow them to be contained and even neutralized.

It is still unclear how the advanced nanotechnology systems and devices will be manufactured. Most experts say that manufacturers will have to develop processes that allow molecular components to manage on their own as large systems. But some start-up companies, such as "Erics", are trying to directly develop the nanometer products. Arix markets a device that allows scientists to move cells and cell fragments using laser beams. The company wants to use a laser to precisely insert particles that are sensitive to various pollutants in a matrix immersed in a viscous material at the end of a bundle of optical fibers. Small shifts in the matrix in response to the attachment of a contaminant to a particle will indicate the presence of the contaminant, Baryx explains.

The dynamics of supply and demand are expected to be the driving force in distinguishing between different manufacturers in the field of nanotechnology, but the Ministry of Defense intends to maintain its influence in the field. The office closely follows the investments around the world in nanotechnology research. Nearly 25 researchers in Asian countries received doctorates in nanotechnology-related engineering fields in 2000, compared to fewer than 5,000 in the United States, according to the National Science Foundation. And according to Dr. James Morday, a senior researcher in the US Navy and the acting director of the National Coordination Office for Nanotechnology, out of 18 thousand scientific articles published on the subject in 2000, only a third were the result of American research. "We will not automatically be the world's leaders in this field," Morday warned.

Courtesy of Walla

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