Army researchers have developed a no-stick, no-stain, no-stink coating that could all but eliminate the need for soldiers to wash their uniforms — and it's going commercial before it goes on your ACU.
The omniphobic coating — "that means it hates everything," lead Army researcher Quoc Truong said in an Army news release — is being marketed by UltraTech International Inc. alongside Luna Innovations, a partner of the Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, under the brand name Ultra-Ever Shield.
Possible commercial uses include coating everything from rain gear to diapers to paper currency. An UltraTech-produced video shows the coating fighting off food stains like ketchup and chocolate syrup, leaving a white swatch of fabric without so much as a mark.
But soldiers who participated in the coating's latest round of testing didn't have time for lunch.
Ten soldiers donned omniphobic-coated ACUs earlier this year at Fort Riley, Kansas, for what researchers called "battle-focused PT" as well as a four-mile road march, gunnery skills training, weapon cleaning, vehicle maintenance, even an obstacle course. The goal: Give the uniforms a real-world dose of dirt, sweat and oil.
The result: Liquids beaded off the coated materials much better than the control group of uniforms, and the omniphobic protection lasted longer through post-test wash cycles than the current coating, known as Quarpel.
"The soldiers really liked it," Truong said in the release. "Some soldiers asked to keep their uniforms after the field test."
Further research requirements made that impossible. NSRDEC officials couldn't say when the treatment might reach the fielding stage — a 2013 Yahoo news report said it was still "years away," and a spokesman said tests still had to be done on different fabric types and to see if the coating works well with other treatments that resist flames and repel insects.
When the coating clears its last hurdle, soldiers can look forward to:
Rapid repellent. The carbon-flourine coating works on a molecular level to "repel water, oil and many liquid chemicals," Truong said in an emailed response to questions. The coating lowers surface tension, allowing such materials, as well as small particles like dust or dirt, to slide off. This also provides another layer of protection for toxic chemicals, which wouldn't sink through uniforms to a soldier's skin.
Odor-blocker. Just because an ACU isn't stained doesn't mean it smells like it's just come out of the wash. However, this round of tests included an anti-microbial additive, Truong said, which would slow the growth of odor-causing organisms and allow more time between cleanings.
Planet-saver. Quarpel, a durable water-repellent coating, has been used on Army gear for 40 years. But DWRs are being phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Truong, and the omniphobic treatment offers an EPA-sanctioned solution. Future coatings could come without fluorine, making them even more eco-friendly.
All of the above would come at a cost less than or equal to the Quarpel coating, Truong said.
As work on the uniform coating continues, Truong said the treatment could find other future military uses outside of the textile realm.
Glasses treated with a variant of the coating would stay crystal clear, for example. Or a car "will not need windshield wipers, as rain will just bounce off the windshield as the car moves forward," he said.
Another use could cross service boundaries — a super-repellent coating on a ship's hull would reduce drag and increase speed, Truong said.
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.