Scientists have developed a way to attach a light coating to fabrics that is capable of neutralizing some of the toxins released and delivered through the skin in chemical warfare. This technology could save lives in a chemical attack. It could be used on soldiers, emergency responders and, if commercially available, civilians who live in war-torn regions.

A new fabric coating could neutralize chemical weapons and help save lives. (American Chemical Society)A new fabric coating could neutralize chemical weapons and help save lives. (American Chemical Society)

Chemical warfare has killed millions since its first use in World War I, and the weapons have become more deadly as technology advances. A pinprick-sized droplet of sarin (a nerve gas) on the skin is lethal. In the last couple of years, scientists have explored the use of zirconium-based metal-organic framework (MOF) powers to destroy and degrade the harmful compounds. MOFs are small porous structures that have a large surface area which allows them to absorb a lot of gases and other substances. Zirconium within the MOFs helps neutralize toxic materials. Making MOFs is a tedious task that required high temperatures and long reaction times. Most MOF powers are currently unstable, so incorporating them into clothing has been difficult. That is until Dennis Lee, Gregory N. Parsons and colleagues wanted to see if they could “grow” MOFs onto fabric at room temperature. This would potentially create a lightweight shield that could be used on clothing to protect from chemical attacks.

The researchers built on previous work, exposing polypropylene, a nonwoven fabric that is commonly used in reusable shopping bags, to a mixture that consists of a zirconium-based MOF, a solvent, and two binding agents. They treated the fabrics with very thin layers of aluminum, titanium or zinc oxide to ensure that the coating was spread evenly across the cloth. They tested this with dimethyl 4-nitrophenyl phosphate (DMNP), which is a harmless molecule that has a similar reactivity to sarin, soman and other nerve agents that are commonly used in chemical warfare. The MOF-treated clothes deactivated the DMNP in less than 5 minutes. This suggests that this process is a feasible means to create clothing that protects from some chemical warfare.

The paper on this research was published in the Chemistry of Materials