Review: 'Tuxedo' a nano showcase

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News   |   Sept. 28, 2002 at 3:59 PM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- It's becoming more and more apparent nanotechnology has nearly unlimited potential but come on -- morphing Jackie Chan into a virtual singing, dancing copy of James Brown?

That spot of artistic license in "The Tuxedo," along with antigravity, are about the only things completely out of reach for nanotech, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular scale.

The movie's premise revolves around a set of jacket and pants whose fabric is computerized and packed with nanotech, capable of turning the most unassuming man-on-the-street into a super spy.

The idea of having clothing actively impart special abilities is real -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, funded by the U.S. Army, is among those researching these concepts. No, the military isn't planning to go black-tie; its interest lies in how nanotech fabrics and devices might add such features as armor, stealth functions and even automatic first aid to a uniform without corresponding weight penalties.

Nanoscale circuits and wires would be essential to providing the tux with the sort of computer network the movie suggests. Some laboratories are working on computer memory and transistors made up of a few molecules, so the cubic foot or so of space most tuxes fill up eventually could be more than enough for a powerful computer and additional goodies.

Actively reading and augmenting a human nervous system, creating an instant bare-hands warrior or dancing fool, is much farther into the future. A set of nanoscale sensors could conceivably be dense enough to monitor the electrical signals involved in using one's muscles; concepts such as this are being considered for real-time monitoring of vital signs. Interpreting and modifying those signals is an entirely different matter, however.

The scene where the tux hides Chan and co-star Jennifer Love Hewitt by mimicking a wall isn't much of a leap from current technology called "digital ink." A minute enough set of electrical contacts prompts a grid of microscopic spheres to display or hide pigments, allowing any surface to display changing images.

Expanding that idea to multiple colors becomes easier if the spheres could shrink to the level of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Such a nano-powered rainbow could enable fabric to take on the coloration and shading of its surroundings -- instant camouflage -- especially if people have a convenient electrical box to hide their uncovered heads behind, as in the movie.

Defying friction, as Jason Isaacs' character does in one dance scene, is another possibility for nanofabrics, especially those containing carbon nanotubes. These tubes, only a couple dozen atoms across and with walls one atom thick, demonstrate great physical strength and temperature resistance.

Another remarkable nanotube property lies in their chirality, or how the tube's atoms are aligned. With the proper chirality, carbon nanotubes become very slick. So if the soles of the tux's shoes contain enough nanotubes, it would be theoretically possible to tweak the chirality and allow the shoes to glide over most any floor.

The only drawback to all these ideas is the rarity of nanotubes and other nanoscale materials. Creating nanotubes requires vacuum chambers and other complex equipment, and scientists have yet to mass-produce them; a gram of nanotubes costs more than the same amount of gold or even platinum. The movie's suggestion "The Tuxedo" costs a couple billion dollars might therefore be a lowball estimate.

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