LIVERMORE -- It could be a scene from the battlefield of a sci-fi video game: A soldier lives through a chemical attack, sheds the top layer of his protective uniform like a snakeskin, and goes on to fight again.
For the past three years, scientists at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory have been working with a material that could do just that.
Livermore Lab scientist Francesco Fornasiero and his two other researchers developed the technology to desalinate water, but realized it could fit the bill for a proposal by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Defense Department arm.
Dubbed the "Second Skin" project by defense researchers, a multiagency effort began in earnest in October to develop the fabric. It would incorporate carbon "nanotubes" that could quickly transform from a breathable state -- with pores too small for bulkier, weaponized germs to pass through -- to a temporary shield that also blocks the tinier molecules of dangerous chemicals.
The agency hopes to replace typical hazard suits that don't let moisture or air through, have a limited range of motion, and can be worn only for up to an hour in some cases, because they can cause heatstroke.
It's the job of Fornasiero, the lead investigator, to create the prototype for a lightweight smart uniform, or "second skin," to protect soldiers from attack.
"They could put it on whenever they're expected to go into any environment where a threat could be present, and wear it all the time," Fornasiero said.
The nanomaterial, grown on silicon wafers, has drawn interest because it promises comfort as well as protection, allowing sweat and air through in its natural state.
The fabric pores are just a few nanometers wide -- about 1/10,000 the diameter of a human hair. The molecules of most biological agents used in warfare -- anthrax, for instance -- are around 10 nanometers in size and can't get through. But those of chemical agents such as mustard and deadly VX gas are smaller; an issue the Livermore team intends to tackle through an outer snakeskin-like layer that can close up on demand and peel off when contaminated.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is putting $13 million into the five-year "Second Skin" project through its Focused Innovative Technology program.
If the suit is smart enough, said Tracee Harris, manager of the Second Skin program, it should be able to let air through in some places while closing it off in others, all at the same time.
"If a specific area of the suit is exposed to an agent, pore blocking will only occur at the exposure site, thus leaving the rest of the unexposed suit breathable," she said via email.
Second skin collaborators include MIT, Rutgers University, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, nanomaterial manufacturer Chasm Technologies, and the Army's Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center.
Heidi Schreuder-Gibson, a team leader with the Natick center, said the agency is especially anxious to ditch today's "hot and heavy" suits.
"Successful second skin technologies ... will provide a new level of comfort and function to the warfighter," she said in an email.
Confident its nanomaterial can keep soldiers cool while still giving protection from deadly bacteria and viruses, the Livermore team recently shifted to the second piece of the puzzle: how to make the material change its structure in response to chemical agents. It is testing two concepts -- one is to design the pores to collapse when under attack. The second is to allow it to shed after absorbing a chemical agent.
"The threat becomes neutralized and is broken down," Fornasiero said. "Then it peels off like a skin that's exfoliating, refreshing the underlying layer."
The second-skin suit is expected to compare in weight to regular clothing.
It's not just the military that could use the material, Fornasiero said, adding it could be used by desalination or decontamination workers, or in hospitals.
In coming years, Fornasiero anticipates having five Livermore scientists dedicated to the program. But don't expect the final product soon, he says. Provided everything goes according to plan, "second skin" won't appear on the market for at least another 10 years.
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.