Say, you might be caught in a thermal bomb blast and you want something to help protect your skin from getting seared in extreme temperatures. Now, thanks to researchers’ work on polymers at the University of Southern Mississippi, you might have just the thing.
Actually, the polymer was designed to be more useful for soldiers than civilians. For centuries, soldiers have used face paint to camouflage themselves. The new polymer lotion would allow soldiers to continue to do that but also protect themselves against the intense heat of roadside bomb blasts and other explosions.
Dr. Robert Lochhead, director of the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials at the university, who helped create the polymer, says:
The detonation of a roadside bomb or any other powerful explosive produces two dangerous blasts. First, comes a blast wave of high pressure that spreads out at supersonic speeds and can cause devastating internal injuries. A thermal blast follows almost instantaneously. It is a wave of heat that exceeds 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as hot as a burning cigarette. The thermal blast lasts only two seconds, but it can literally cook the face, hands and other exposed skin.
The U.S. Department of Defense has been searching for a material that could be smeared on skin like suntan lotion. It also had to reflect intense heat, be useful for camouflage in the night and day, be easy to apply and remove, be waterproof; and non-irritating to a soldier’s eyes, nose, and mouth.
Lochhead at first thought this was a tall order. But he and his team eventually found a silicon polymer formation that in laboratory experiments protected skin much longer than the two-second heat-wave threat of improvised explosive devices and other bombs, according to a press release from the American Chemical Society.
The camouflage makeup protects the skin for up to 15 seconds before its own temperature rises to the point where it could cause a first-degree, or mild, burn. In other experiments, the material protected hands and faces up to 60 seconds, which may be enough time for soldiers to move away from blast-related fires. Therefore, this material also could be used by firefighters. The researchers are developing a colorless material for them.
The research team had to avoid using mineral oil, mineral spirits, fatty substances, and other traditional hydrocarbon makeup ingredients because they can burn in contact with intense heat. The researchers turned to silicon, which is not flammable because it absorbs radiation at wavelengths outside of the heat spectrum.
Another challenge was blending DEET, an insect repellent, into the material. The military requires that all camouflage makeup contain 35% DEET.
“DEET also is flammable, so when the Department of Defense asked us to incorporate it, we didn’t think we could do it,” says Lochhead, who reported his findings at a meeting with the American Chemical Society last summer. But the team succeeded by encapsulating DEET in a hydrogel substance, a water-rich material that kept DEET from catching fire.
Source: “New era in camouflage makeup: Shielding soldiers from searing heat of bomb blasts,” American Chemical Society press release, 8/22/12
Image by Israel Defense Forces.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.