Researchers at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development
Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center are exploring the use of synthetic
carbon as a filtration material against chemical warfare agents and toxic
Gregory Peterson and his team in the Center’s Chemical,
Biological & Radiological Filtration Branch, with funding from the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), are working with a biologically
engineered material developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of
The seed of Peterson’s idea began when DARPA, working with
Dr. Angela Belcher at MIT, contacted Peterson to ask if the Center could
evaluate and help optimize the material that MIT developed from templated
Bacteriophage is a parasitic virus that takes over its host,
mimicking its DNA as the virus reproduces. This synthetic biological process
lets scientists tune biological systems to produce molecules that are difficult
or impossible to produce otherwise.
The synthetic carbon molecule, called BioCNF for
biologically-templated carbon nanofiber, is lighter than natural carbon.
“In its current form it is less than half the packing
density of our traditional coal-based carbon,” Peterson said.
Peterson has also discovered that BioCNF has the ability to
filter a broader spectrum of toxic chemicals than its mined counterpart and
even other engineered sorbents or porous materials like metal organic frameworks
“We are systematically changing the heteroatoms – elements
such as nitrogen, oxygen, etc. – to tune adsorption/reaction behavior,”
Peterson explained. “The carbon nanofibers are some of the best sorbents we
have seen. Without being optimized, they have better broad-spectrum capacity
than current filtering substances.”
There are plans to create engineered particles by
integrating the BioCNFs with additional active materials to make lighter and
more efficient filters and suits, creating less encumbrance. A warfighter with
superior protection and agility is more lethal on the battlefield.
Peterson foresees using BioCNF in a functioning suit and/or
mask in the field within the next 10 years but says there is still a lot to
learn about the nanofiber, including its scalability and suitability to further
“Right now, the substance is a powder,” Peterson said. “You
can’t put powder in a filter, because you can’t breathe through it.
“We could really ramp this up to begin putting it into filters
and suits,” Peterson shared.
“Working with DARPA and involving just the right partners in
the public and private sectors could advance this project more quickly.”
Peterson has already shown proof of concept by combining the
synthesized carbon with a polymer, using the electro-spinning process.
“We form a composite fiber using a solution of polymer, high
voltage, a needle and a collector plate,” Peterson explained. “We add the
BioCNFs as a suspension in the polymer solution and then electro-spin it into
the composite fiber, which can then be incorporated into a textile for a
protective suit or as a flexible low burden filter.
“Working on a separate program with DTRA [Defense Threat Reduction Agency], we are looking toward a self-sealing suit that would close exposed areas, preventing spread of the agent,” Peterson said. “If we can absorb an agent that has the potential to penetrate a warfighter’s protective suit, if we can react quickly enough before it seeps through to the skin, that’s a benefit to the warfighter.”