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Nerve agents are among the world's most feared chemical weapons, but scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a way to engineer carbon nanotubes to dismantle the molecules of a major class of these chemicals. In principle, they say, the nanotubes could be woven into clothing that destroys the nerve agents on contact before they reach the skin.

The team's experiments show that nanotubes—special molecules that resemble cylinders formed of chicken wire—can be combined with a copper-based catalyst able to break apart a key chemical bond in the class of nerve agents that includes Sarin. A small amount of catalyst can break this bond in a large number of molecules, potentially rendering a nerve agent far less harmful. Because nanotubes further enhance the breakdown capability of the catalyst and can be woven into fabric easily, the NIST team members say the findings could help protect military personnel involved in cleanup operations.

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