A team of researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) along with researchers at Clemson University recently signed a contract with the U.S. Army to develop a smart coating that would enable military vehicles, if corroded or scratched, to detect and heal themselves. The vehicles could also change color on the battlefield, creating instant camouflage, rendering tanks and other military vehicles hard to detect.
"We're just getting started, really," said research team leader Daniel J. Watts, Ph.D., executive director of the York Center for Environmental Engineering and Science and Panasonic Chair in Sustainability at NJIT. "Our goal is to extend the period of time between initial painting application and the need to strip and repaint."
According to Dr. Watts, the research team hopes to accomplish this goal by developing a coating system with three different capabilities that currently do not exist in the science of coatings technology. The key, he believes, is nanotechnology.
The coatings will be embedded with, and driven by, nanotechnology known as nano-machines. The microscopic electro-mechanical machines will send signals to Army personnel, alerting them if the coating is impaired; thus the name, smart coating.
"Existing science says this is possible, that these are achievable goals," said Dr. Watts. "The Beckman Center at the University of Illinois has done research on this showing that monomer capsules embedded in the coatings can repair a scratch. We want to create a new monomer/polymer system that will have multiple-time release capabilities."
In addition, Dr. Watts hopes the new coating will have a nanosensor that will enable the coatings to sense and trigger the repairs completely independent of human action. "We need to think about the ability to detect changes in the body and contour and continuity of the coating. Changes in the integrity of the coating will be picked up by sensors and will trigger responses," he said.
The third goal for the new system is camouflage, according to Dr. Watts. "We want the coatings to be able to change colors to match any environment, eliminating the need to repaint vehicles for different theaters of operation," he said.
The team hopes to have a prototype coating ready by 2005, but Dr. Watts does not believe that the first prototype will be able to do all the things they hope to achieve. "Will only one prototype do all these things? No, but we may have a few prototypes, each one able to demonstrate one of these capabilities, and then we'll work to combine them."
Smart coatings might sound overly complicated and hi-tech for a class of products that consumers view as a relatively simplistic science, but Dr. Watts believes the idea is extremely necessary and relevant to today's world. "It's an issue of readiness," he said. "It's something that is very topical given the buildup for possible war in Iraq and the goal to have a military able to deploy anywhere within a very short amount of time. Currently, up to 20% of army vehicles are out of service due to coatings damage and repainting needs. Smart coatings can eliminate a lot of those needs."