A new generation of combat uniforms using tiny, doctored fibres that let air through while blocking lethal toxins from chemical and biological weapons is being developed by the US Army.

The "chemical protective overgarment" could be issued to soliders within two years thanks to nanotechnology - the science of manipulating single atoms and molecules to create new products.

Although nanotechnology won't be ready to build tiny machines or computer processors for at least 10 years, researchers in materials science are already using it to change the properties of plastics, oils and textiles, giving them breathability, heat-resistance, strength and flexibility.

"They're such small fibres, it's not a trivial matter to get them into a uniform that's going to be twisted and sat on" said Tom Tassinari, a scientist with the US Army Natick Soldier Centre in Natick, Mass.

By 2012, the army hopes to distribute a "smart" combat uniform with nanoengineered fibers, embedded sensors and tiny computers that allow it to stop bullets, monitor vital signs and undergo chameleon-like camouflage changes that blend in to surroundings.

In the military and civilian worlds, a wave of new nanoproducts are emerging. Products include scratch-proof eyeglasses, helium-filled sneakers, stain-proof trousers and even plastic-encased ballistic missiles.

Experts alter the molecular structure of a product's raw material to create a new structure with properties that go far beyond the original.

Scientists from DuPont are trying to create fibers that conduct electricity and change their shape from round to square or triangular to be used in clothes that change colour and size at a wearer's command.

While a small firm outside Boston, Triton Systems Inc, is selling a nanoengineered plastic pouch for use as a helium-filled heel cushion in Converse Helium sneakers sold in Japan and China.

Trition uses an additive of clay nanoparticles to tighten the molecular structure of the pouch, allowing it to trap the helium underfoot for a minimum of 18 months, which allows the wearer greater comfort.

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Pigments: Organic, Inorganic & Specialty: Forecasts to 2005 & 2010

The 2000-2005 World Outlook for Textile Fabrics