One chilly fall day in 2001 my brother and I were chain-
sawing fallen trees for firewood when the saw kicked on a knot and shot out of my brother’s hands and into his groin. It took me 10 minutes to pry his hands off the area of injury so I could assess the damage, which turned out to be just an ugly gash in his jeans. Another time I watched a friend bounce off a mogul and impale himself in the upper thigh with the wrong end of his ski pole. And I’m not just an observer of mayhem; I’m a victim, too. I’ve survived a motorcycle accident, dog and snake bites, and the nuclear accident at
Three Mile Island; I’ve also had a gun pulled on me in anger, escaped two flash fires, and been knocked unconscious by fire-extinguishing gas while sitting in a fake space capsule. (I’m not making any of this up; my editors wouldn’t let me.)
All of which leads me to conclude there is a market for clothes that are crash-bullet-blast-toxin-radiation-proof and that also monitor both the wearer and his environment for threats. A market not for police and rescue workers and other hero types, but for ordinary disaster magnets like me. And no need for them to be particularly stylish—you can’t take coolness with you, or take much advantage of it if you have been de-crotched.
To assemble such a nurturing ensemble, I’ll start with Kevlar, the tough synthetic fiber used in clothing already available to protect against motorcycle falls, chain saw accidents, bullets, blasts, and even snakebites. A bunch of problems solved at once? Not necessarily.
Ronald Egres, the scientist who develops high-tech fibers for protective clothing at DuPont, Kevlar’s maker, notes that different types of threats call for different types of Kevlar. Slowing a bullet, for instance, requires a loosely woven version of the material with soccer-net-like elasticity, while holding together against the sharp tip of a knife requires a tightly woven fabric.
Fortunately I may not have to settle for this potentially deadly trade-off. Egres’s team is finding ways to overlap different weaves of Kevlar, some of them reinforced with plastic resins, for protection against multiple hazards. “It’s a division of labor among the layers,” he says, noting that DuPont has already used such smart layering to reduce the thickness of a bulletproof vest from 36 layers to 11, and its weight from 5 pounds to 4.
It is conceivable, then, that in the near future I will be well shielded from my favorite life-threatening weapons, but what if during my adventures I am engulfed by flames or toxic waste? I could bolster my Kevlar duds with a few layers of plastic sheeting to seal out liquids and vapors and add an outer coating of reflective aluminum to fend off the intense but short-lived radiant heat of a flash fire. Then again, I could also suffocate to death.
Philip Mann, the technology chief at Kappler, a Guntersville, Alabama, company that manufactures such multilayer suits for emergency responders, notes that while such a suit would do a great job of sealing out nasty liquid, gas, and heat, it would also do a great job of sealing in all the nasty liquid, gas, and heat that my body produces. “If your sweat can’t evaporate, you can’t cool yourself,” he says. “You might not last long.” Fortunately Kappler has an answer in development: a breathable material with micropores small enough to keep out dangerous molecules, but just large enough to let out water molecules, so that I can stay comfortable for hours while I’m wading through pools of glowing green goo. Even if I don’t ever don that suit, it could make life a lot more pleasant for emergency workers and cleanup crews.
That still leaves the problem of how to guard against toxic fumes. I’m too practical to want to walk around in a full breathing apparatus all day long, appealing as that sounds. RAE Systems in San Jose, California, presents a possible solution in the form of a portable gas detector small enough to mount on a belt buckle no larger than the one I wore through most of the 1970s. The company claims the device can identify more than 300 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), those foul chemical vapors that waft off solvents, new carpet and furniture, and just about anything else that comes out of a factory, plus 25 different toxic gases.
The device’s sweeping sensitivity comes from a tiny sensor that uses UV light to knock electrons out of most gas molecules, creating a measurable electric current. Meanwhile a heated platinum bead in the detector ignites whatever flammable gases it encounters and then measures the resulting heat. “We can detect VOCs down to the parts per billion,” claims RAE marketing manager Michael Weinstein.
Next page: Anti-radiation underpants? Unnecessary