Nanotube-infused clothing may protect against chemical weapons

May 7, 2014 by Chad Boutin
Nanotube-infused clothing may protect against chemical weapons
Single-walled carbon nanotubes, represented by the gray cylinders, can be combined with a catalyst (purple ribbons) that is capable of breaking down Sarin and related toxins into less dangerous components. The idea might one day be used to create clothing for increased protection against nerve agents.

Nerve agents are among the world's most feared chemical weapons, but scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a way to engineer carbon nanotubes to dismantle the molecules of a major class of these chemicals. In principle, they say, the nanotubes could be woven into clothing that destroys the nerve agents on contact before they reach the skin.

The team's experiments show that nanotubes—special molecules that resemble cylinders formed of chicken wire—can be combined with a copper-based able to break apart a key in the class of nerve agents that includes Sarin. A small amount of catalyst can break this bond in a large number of molecules, potentially rendering a far less harmful. Because nanotubes further enhance the breakdown capability of the catalyst and can be woven into fabric easily, the NIST team members say the findings could help protect military personnel involved in cleanup operations.

Sarin—used in a 1995 Tokyo subway attack—is one of several deadly nerve agents of a group called organophosphates. Many are classified as weapons of mass destruction. While organophosphates are harmful if inhaled, they also are dangerous if absorbed through the skin, and can be even be re-released from clothing if not thoroughly decontaminated.

To protect themselves during research, the team did not work with actual nerve agents, but instead used a "mimic molecule" that contains a chemical bond identical to the one found in organophosphates. Breaking this bond splits the molecule into pieces that are far less dangerous.

The team developed a way to attach the catalyst molecule to the nanotubes and then tested the effectiveness of the tube-catalyst complex to break the bonds. To perform the test, the complex was deposited onto a small sheet of paper and put into a solution containing the mimic molecule. For comparison, the catalyst without nanotubes was tested simultaneously in a different solution. Then it was a simple matter of stirring and watching chemistry in action.

"The solution was initially transparent, almost like water," says the team's John Heddleston, "but as soon as we added the paper, the solution started to turn yellow as the breakdown product accumulated. Measuring this color change over time told us the amount and rate of catalysis. We began to see a noticeable difference within an hour, and the longer we left it, the more yellow it became." The catalyst-nanotube complex far outperformed the catalyst alone.

Principal investigator Angela Hight Walker says that several questions will need to be addressed before catalytic nanotubes start showing up in clothing, such as whether it is better to add the catalyst to the before or after they are woven into the fabric.

"We'd also like to find ways to make the catalytic reaction go faster, which is always better," Hight Walker says. "But our research group has been focusing on the fundamental science of nanoparticles for years, so we are in a good position to answer these questions."

Explore further: Researchers observe, control, and optimize the growth of individual carbon nanotubes

More information: M.M. Bailey, J.M. Heddleston, J. Davis, J.L. Staymates and A.R. Hight Walker. "Functionalized, carbon nanotube material for the catalytic degradation of organophosphate nerve agents." Nano Research, DOI: 10.1007/s12274-014-0405-3 , 2014, 7(3): 390–398.

Related Stories

New small-molecule catalyst does the work of many enzymes

October 3, 2013

Researchers report that they have created a man-made catalyst that is an "enzyme mimic." Unlike most enzymes, which act on a single target, the new catalyst can alter the chemical profiles of numerous types of small molecules. ...

Organic chemistry: Carbon dioxide tamed

January 15, 2014

Carbon dioxide has become notorious as a troublesome greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels. Now, this gas could also offer a cheap, abundant and nontoxic source of carbon for the chemical reactions that synthesize ...

Recommended for you

For 2-D boron, it's all about that base

September 2, 2015

Rice University scientists have theoretically determined that the properties of atom-thick sheets of boron depend on where those atoms land.

Electrical circuit made of gel can repair itself

August 25, 2015

(Phys.org)—Scientists have fabricated a flexible electrical circuit that, when cut into two pieces, can repair itself and fully restore its original conductivity. The circuit is made of a new gel that possesses a combination ...

An engineered surface unsticks sticky water droplets

August 31, 2015

The leaves of the lotus flower, and other natural surfaces that repel water and dirt, have been the model for many types of engineered liquid-repelling surfaces. As slippery as these surfaces are, however, tiny water droplets ...

Scientists grow high-quality graphene from tea tree extract

August 21, 2015

(Phys.org)—Graphene has been grown from materials as diverse as plastic, cockroaches, Girl Scout cookies, and dog feces, and can theoretically be grown from any carbon source. However, scientists are still looking for a ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.