Iowa State University tapped for $317 million protective apparel project

'This research has the potential to touch so many lives'

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The United States Department of Defense on Friday announced plans to commit $75 million toward a $317 million public-private partnership to improve protective clothing for military members, firefighters, emergency responders, and other professionals who work in high-risk fields.

A lab at Iowa State University has been tapped to participate in the “Advanced Functional Fabrics of America” partnership, charged with creating the “Revolutionary Fiber and Textile Manufacturing Innovation Institute” based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition to the government, industry partners have committed millions to the project — adding up to the $317 million. In total, 31 universities, 16 industry members, and 26 startup incubators and other partners are participating in the project, which has the broader aim of advancing U.S. manufacturing.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s contribution will span five years, after which the institute is expected to be creating enough new products to be self-sustaining, said Guowen Song, associate professor and the Noma Scott Lloyd Chair in Textiles and Clothing at Iowa State.

“We are trying to improve the manufacturing by revolutionizing textiles and fibers,” Song told The Gazette.

Iowa State’s role in the project will include researchers from a variety of different departments and disciplines — including apparel design, materials science and engineering, and kinesiology. That, according to Song, will enable multidisciplinary study on improving clothing performance — including through new textile materials, garment designs, and performance analyses.

“Design is not just for fashion and looking good,” Song said in a statement. “This is a great opportunity to focus on new novel textiles, fibers, and polymers and see how the new technology can really change the performance of the protective gear.”

Professionals targeted for this new gear include members of the military, firefighters, and even mechanical, biological, and medical professionals who might interact with chemicals, hazardous materials, or infectious diseases, Song said.

“We are building a system against any potential threat,” he said, adding that new technologies might also become useful to athletes.

“This research has the potential to touch so many lives, whether it leads to improved protective gear for the worker, or for the person depending on that worker,” ISU College of Human Sciences Dean Pamela White said in statement.

Song said Iowa State in recent months and years has been developing new technologies and labs to test apparel in simulated work environments involving specific temperatures, humidity, chemicals, and ultraviolet light exposure.

The goal is to create clothing — jackets, pants, boots, gloves, and helmets — that are lighter and operate as one system, reducing stress on the body, improving protection, and refining their function. Song said researchers face plenty of hurdles but also have unprecedented opportunities to revolutionize gear through new fibers, textiles, and even wearable electronics.

He said it’s possible to embed sensors in the clothing that could monitor body temperature or blood pressure, for example. The goal, he said, is to monitor heat strain or stress and reduce injuries and accidents.

As Iowa State ramps up its work specific to this project, Song said about 15 researchers could become involved — maybe more.

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