The Parallax
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The Parallax

Are Nanosuits in Our Near Future?

When I was a teenager living in Brooklyn of the 1950s, I did not know how to defend myself and was constantly afraid of violence from older boys. I wanted to take a self-defense course but there was no place in Brooklyn that offered this training.

Then in my twenties, our family moved to California. I found a karate-based self-defense club at the university where I did my physics research. It was just what I needed. During the twenty months of hands-on lessons in Bruce Lee’s street-fighting techniques, I lost my fear of physical confrontation and acquired confidence in my ability to defend myself. That confidence has lasted until today. Now in my eighties, I still practice self-defense moves as a form of exercise. But I accept that in the unlikely event of a mugging or other threat, I might not be able to summon the self-defense techniques that I had mastered decades ago.

I believe that the pandemic has made society more dangerous. In 2020, major U.S. Cities experienced its most violent year in decades with an unprecedented rise in homicides. More than 19,000 people died in shootings or firearm-related incidents, the highest figure in over two decades.

Months ago, I was caught in a Friday evening traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge entrance ramp in Fort Lee, New Jersey, I saw drivers jump out of their cars and threaten other drivers who refused to get out of their way. We called the police the following morning to ask why they hadn’t intervened. They told us that they had been overwhelmed by too many incidents of near-violent behavior. During the pandemic, my sister-in-law told me about gangs of youths who were terrorizing seniors in upper Manhattan. She said it was unwise to walk alone in the early mornings and late evenings. It took the police weeks to catch the gang and stop the muggings.

How will I protect myself if I am physically threatened?

Tony Stark’s Nanosuit

Today is my 82nd birthday. My children asked what I wanted. I asked them, tongue in cheek, to buy me a nanosuit. Unfortunately, these are not yet on the market. You must go to the movies to see what they can do to protect us.

In the film Iron Man, Tony Stark is the CEO of Stark Industries, a military defense contractor. While in Afghanistan, he is wounded and captured by terrorists. To escape, he and a colleague build a special exoskeleton suit powered by a miniaturized Arc Reactor placed into its chest piece.

Stark’s enhanced suit is a self-contained environment with assorted weapons and communications systems. It possesses multiple power sources including a secondary solar energy function if conventional recharging methods are unavailable. The suit also features propulsion jets situated in the boots that enable Stark to fly, as well as repulsors in the gauntlets used for steering and braking.

When Stark dons the armored suit, he becomes Iron Man, a superhuman warrior with extraordinary strength, speed, agility, and endurance. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Iron Man’s armor is that it has continued to change and evolve over the course of multiple films.

In the original Iron Man film (2008), Tony Stark’s suit of armor is not iron, but is made of “a nickel-titanium alloy.” In its most recent manifestation, the entire suit resides within Stark’s body. When mentally commanded, it appears externally as the Iron Man armor. The armor is now composed of nano-machines that can be made to turn into any type of structure upon Stark’s skin.

To Not Only Survive but Prevail

Tony Stark’s search for the ideal suit of armor is driven not only by his desire to protect himself during battle but also prevail against his enemies. Soldiers have shared this desire since the beginning of civilization.

One of the earliest images of armor appears on the Royal Standard of Ur and depicts Sumerian soldiers wearing copper helmets and leather cloaks covered with metal disks. Other early examples of metal armors come from Greek Mycenaean Era, and include bronze metal plate armors that protected the torso, arms and upper.

English medieval knights wore metal armor of iron to protect themselves from archers and the long swords of opponents. From the 9th century CE, chain mail suits gave protection and freedom of movement until steel plate armor was invented in the 14th century CE.

Cannons, rifles and handguns eventually made the heavy armored suits of the medieval period obsolete. By the time of the Renaissance, armies stopped using body armor to improve their soldiers’ stamina and ability to engage in long marches.

In 1952 the U.S. Army Body Armor Test Team field tested the T-52–1 body armor vest with front-line troops in Korea. The team found that the new vest stopped 75% of all bomb fragments, and 24% of small arms projectiles.

Today, ceramic plates and Kevlar body armor are standard issue in the U.S. military. They not only protect troops but also allow them enough mobility to do their jobs in a hostile environment. Engineers are testing materials such as spider silk and nanotubes that are even lighter and don’t get as hot as Kevlar.

Is Iron Man’s Armor Possible?

Building a Nanosuit poses a host of technological challenges:

· A growth algorithm for the exoskeletal structure

· Self-replicating components.

· Strong magnetic fields for the anti-gravity and repulsor technology.

· Next-generation CPUs and processors to run everything.

· Advanced insulation and dampening energy intake/redistribution.

In his book How to Build an Iron Man Suit, Barry Fitzgerald shows what’s currently possible and what is still science fiction. According to Fitzgerald, 75% of the suit could be built today. “The missing 25 percent includes the crucial things: the flight capability. The weapons systems of the suit are also a long way off. And perhaps some elements of the controls would also be some distance away. But everything else? 75% is already available to us — and that includes the biosensors, the materials, control with voice assistance or brainwave technology, the wound healing treatments, the exoskeleton foundation, flight mode as a drone and lots more besides.”

Nanotechnology

As its name implies, a nanosuit is built with nanotechnology. Engineers can manipulate materials on an atomic or molecular scale to build microscopic devices such as tiny robots. Placing atoms as though they were bricks, nanotechnology will give us complete control over the structure of matter. With it we can build any substance or structure permitted by the laws of nature — including a Nanosuit.

Nanotechnology operates in an extremely small environment, where lengths are measured in nanometers (nm). One nm is a billionth (0.000000001) of a meter A nm is to a meter in length, as a marble’s diameter is to the earth’s diameter. An average man’s beard grows about 1 nm in the time it takes him to raise the razor to his face. Hydrogen, the smallest element, has a diameter of 0.1 nm. A DNA double-helix has a diameter around 2 nm.

Graphene’s Super Strength

Graphene is the name for an atom-thick honeycomb sheet of carbon atoms. It is the strongest substance we know of. The breaking strength of a graphene sheet is a hundred times stronger than a sheet of steel and weighs 1/10,000 the weight of a steel sheet. A sheet of graphene can be one or several atoms thick and can be rolled into a carbon “nanotube” that is much stronger than the flat sheet. It is even stronger than a diamond. Engineers have spun these nanotubes into flexible fibers to create wearable nanomaterials.

Researchers at Columbia University state that it is “so strong it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.”

Graphene has emerged as one of the most promising nanomaterials because of its unique combination of superb properties: it is not only one of the thinnest but also strongest materials; it conducts heat better than all other materials; it is a great conductor of electricity; it is optically transparent, yet so dense that it is impermeable to gases — not even helium, the smallest gas atom, can pass through it. It’s also the perfect substance for build a Nanosuit.

The Protective Properties of D30 Gel

While carbon nanotubes can be used to create bulletproof fabric for body armor and sports applications, when combined with a fluid called D30 nanogel, such fabric becomes even more protective.

D30 nanogel is one of a class of a dilatant non-Newtonian fluids, which are flexible when moving slowly, but when impacted become rigid. Then they return to a flexible state.

Common examples of such materials are silly putty, ketchup, and quicksand. Mary Jane, a popular candy bar of my youth, was a nanogel (although we didn’t know that term in 1950.) If you gently pulled on both ends of the candy bar, it would stretch. If you smacked it against a hard surface, it would break into fragments as though it was a piece of glass. The pieces would then resume their flexible state. We enjoyed smacking it more than eating it. D30 gel can absorb much of the energy from a shock or impact, greatly reducing the damage to the wearer. It is already in use in protective sports equipment.

Imagine a suit of armor with a graphene base that is covered in pockets of D30. When struck by, say, a bullet, the D30 would absorb the impact and dissipate its momentum. The graphene base would then stop any fragments from penetrating the wearer’s body.

What Can We Expect in the Future?

Given today’s rapid pace of technological advancement, it appears certain that scientists will develop some form of Nanosuit for soldiers in the next decade. But it’s also important to remember that the military has been the incubator for many scientific breakthroughs that have aided the civilian population. Among these are the flu vaccine, blood plasma transfusions, penicillin, radar, jet engines and computers.

So, it’s not far-fetched to envision nanosuits that can be used by consumers. Perhaps nano shirts that keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter? Or what about Nanohats that are stronger, lighter and more protective that motorcycle helmets? The possibilities are endless.

Tony Stark, Move Over!

Well, this afternoon FedEx delivered my consumer model nanosuit. I was amazed how many features it contained. The basic suit came in two pieces: a graphene fabric undergarment that clings to my torso and legs like a second skin, and several D30 pouches that fit into pockets in the graphene garment and harden immediately upon impact. The package also contained a cloaking device makes me invisible , and a magnetic-powered repulser system that enables me to fend off any attacker. The company promises that an antigravity system will be available in three to five years.

It took just 15 minutes to put on the suit and to make sure its components are working. I am amazed how comfortable I feel. I turn on the invisibility system and watch myself in a mirror as I slowly disappear. I turn off this system and head toward the service elevator. It is nearly midnight and I feel invulnerable. I leave the building and walk slowly through my neighborhood.

I’m looking for trouble.

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The key to a successful life is our ability to view the world from differing perspectives. Perspective taking brings the mindfulness of compassion and empathy to our lives.

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Michael Franzblau PhD

Michael Franzblau PhD

Michael Franzblau is a NJ-based writer and educator with a PhD in physics. His new book, ”Science Goes to the Movies,” links sci-fi movies with current science.

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