Magazine article National Defense

New Fabrics Promise Better Fire Protection for IED-Battered Troops

Magazine article National Defense

New Fabrics Promise Better Fire Protection for IED-Battered Troops

Article excerpt

NATICK, Mass. --Here at the smallest of Army installations, the devil is in the details.

Scientists at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center know that pockets can save lives and that sewing them onto the Army uniform at an angle can curb injury after an explosion by channeling flames away from the face. They understand that the more pockets a uniform has, the more layers of fabric there are between a soldier and fire.

Ever since enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan began using improvised explosive devices, the Army has been on a mission to conquer the threat, which has become the biggest killer of troops in both wars. Much of the focus at Natick is on improving a soldier's chance of surviving such a blast, and a lot of that has to do with what he's wearing at the time of an explosion.

Natick engineers recently dressed a mannequin in the current version of the Flame Resistant Army Combat Uniform (FR-ACU) and set it ablaze with a series of blowtorches. The mannequin was outfitted with 123 sensors to capture data about how protected a soldier would be in a sustained fire event, such as being trapped in a burning vehicle following a roadside bomb blast.

The intense fire lasted for four seconds. Then the blowtorches were turned off, and the uniform extinguished itself. The results came back quickly on a computer monitor: The simulated soldier had suffered bums over 29 percent of his body.

Natick scientists regularly conduct tests like this in their quest to find the perfect blend of fabric that no flame can penetrate. The mannequin, which they call Pyro-Man, helps them create a baseline of what protective clothing is available today and what materials may improve a soldier's chance of survival. And while 29 percent is a drastic improvement over previous uniforms,researchers admit they have a long way to go to reach their goal of preventing all burns.

Easier said than done, says Peggy Auerbach, the lead textile technologist at Natick's joint Army-Navy thermal test facility, where engineers also have a 650-degree oven and propane burn pit at their disposal.

The Army's FR-ACU is made from a self-extinguishing fabric that will not melt, drip or be affected by multiple washes. The fabric is called Defender M, a blend of three materials. It consists mostly of flame-resistant rayon and smaller percentages of an anti-ballistic material Twaron and nylon.

The Army began giving these uniforms to deploying soldiers in 2010. About the same time it began fielding the FR-ACU, the service embarked on a project to improve it. Companies sent in more than 52 fabrics for study. The Army tested their resistance to tearing, abrasion and flames in the lab. Pyro-Man single-handedly eliminated some materials from the competition. Other fabrics fought off flames successfully but were not breathable enough, says Maj. Joel Dillon, assistant product manager for soldier clothing and individual equipment.

"We can't have a soldier wearing a garbage bag," he says.

Eight fabrics were sewn into full uniforms and given to 300 soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, to wear and evaluate. The Marine Corps also tested some of the materials.

The Army went into this effort with the goal of finding a family of textiles they could use in the uniform. But as testing neared completion, only one fabric met all of the criteria--the same blend of rayon, Twaron and nylon called Defender M. The material is produced by a Georgia-based subsidiary of TenCate, which is headquartered in the Netherlands. The only difference between the blend currently in use and the new one is that the threads are larger in diameter.

Test results indicate that this change has worked.

The current uniform has a "burn prediction" just under 30 percent as confirmed by the Pyro-Man test. The new blend brings that down to less than 20 percent, Dillon says. While it could be a few years before soldiers are wearing the improved Defender M, these developments represent dramatic advances for troops, who first began deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan wearing a more flammable mix of cotton and nylon. …

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