BOSTON, April 11 (UPI) -- Confident that U.S. combat troops in Iraq are uniformed in the best available materials, researchers are testing new "smart" textiles that would protect the war fighters while making them as "lethal as a tank."
"We're always improving what's in the field," said Maurice N. Larrivee, a materials technology team leader at the Soldier Systems Center, the Army's research and development facility in the Boston suburb of Natick, Mass.
"Our main focus is on protecting the war fighter every which way," Larrivee told United Press International, "whether it's from environmental threats, ballistics threats, chemical threats, fire threats, even things like anti-microbe protection.
"That's our mission, to make things better, to be innovative and create new things," said Larrivee, who heads up four protective materials research teams under the Individual Protection Directorate at the center.
Textiles used today include many different fibers and fiber blends that "work brilliantly, but," he said, "they're all dumb."
"Right now our research is going in the direction to make these materials smart materials, or interactive materials," he said.
He explained that characteristics -- such as electronic, computer and communication devices -- are being woven into the fabric so the materials "react automatically to some kind of stimuli."
Or, he said, they could be activated by a switch or preprogrammed "so they react in certain ways to certain things that happen."
A new generation of flame retardant protective suits made of smart materials, for example, are being developed.
The suits would actively resist fire. The outer layer would actually be drawn toward the flame and away from the body, keeping the body cool.
The inner layer would also be of a smart material that would create space between the fabric and the skin, further protecting the body from the fire's heat.
A foam could also be exuded from the surface of the fabric to extinguish the fire, he said.
While fire protective suits are already in use by air and ground combat vehicle personnel, regular ground combat troops do not have flame retardant materials.
That will change because of the way future wars are likely to be fought, Larrivee said.
"Because the concept of the war in the future is going to be more and more urban fighting," Larrivee said, "you're going to see an urgent need for smart fire resistant uniforms for soldiers and Marines."
"We're working on that," he said.
He also told about a new polymer material that's being used in wet suits by, for example, Navy Seals.
"What that material does is, it's smart enough so that when a diver is in the water and it gets cold, the wet suit will close up its pores and keep the diver warm," he said.
When the diver comes out of the water and it's not as cold, the pores open up and breathe and make the person comfortable, allowing him to carry out his mission without having to change clothes.
"With this amphibian suit that we've developed, he's capable of operating with one suit," Larrivee said.
While American troops now are well equipped electronically, the soldier of the future is going to have a lot more electronic equipment than he does now.
The labs are working on uniforms with battery-powered undershirts containing miniature heaters and air-conditioners, and wrist-mounted weapons fired by voice command.
"The soldier of the future, probably 10 to 15 years from now," Larrivee said, "is going to be as lethal as an army tank. This one soldier."
The development teams, using high performance fibers and fabrics, are also focused on reducing the weight and bulk of the uniforms, chemical protection suits and body armor now used in the field, while keeping the same level of protection.
For example, there's a new fabric for the body armor vests.
The fabric itself won't stop bullets -- that's the job of the plates inside - but does help protect the trooper from blast shrapnel.
"If you wore the vests without the plates it would stop fragmentation, the shrapnel," Larrivee said.
"We have excellent protection with our chemical suits right now," he said, but, "we're developing new materials" to reduce weight and bulk while keeping chemical agents out.
"Some of the things that we're doing are probably dreams, visions, and we're making a lot of progress on them," he said, "but we're not there yet."
He said two relatively recent revolutionary developments in the textile industry -- nanotechnology and electrotextiles -- allowed miniaturized electronic components to be integrated in textiles without adding a lot of weight and bulk.
"Those two things are allowing us to work on a lot of things that you're going to see pretty soon in the near future," he said. "We're working on things like self-repairing tears. If you get a tear in a chemical suit, you're compromised. We're working on things where that tear will self repair automatically."
He said nanotechnology and electrotextiles has made it very exciting to be working in his field now.
"It's become a very exciting thing to actually create a situation where materials can perform in many different ways," said Larrivee, who often gives seminars on the subject.
"I get all excited when I talk about this stuff," he said. "It's very neat."
(For more information, see Web site sbccom.army.mil, click on soldier systems center. Also Web site Natick.army.mil)