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Team led by UMass Amherst scientist gets $6.25m grant

Imagine a shirt for the military that could transform itself into a chemical-resistant skin guard as soon as it detects a dangerous chemical.

A UMass Amherst scientist hopes to use a $6.25 million grant from the US Department of Defense to lay the groundwork to make such advancements a reality.

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“If we could do that, that would be truly transformative,’’ said Thai Thayumanavan, who leads a group of chemists, physicists, and chemical engineers at UMass that researches molecular algorithms. “The problem is, we don’t have the fundamental science that can do that type of thing.”

The grant, dispersed over five years, is part of the DOD’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative award, the university announced in a statement Wednesday.

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Thayumanavan’s team includes researchers from the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California San Diego.

Together, they will use the money to try to understand how chemical processes go from molecular -- something that cannot be seen by the naked eye -- to macroscopic, the reaction in the process that can be seen, Thayumanavan said.

“Our team will try to develop a fundamental understanding of how we can advance future investigations of these phenomena,” Thayumanavan said in the statement. “This fundamental understanding could have implications in developing new technologies that are not available currently.”

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With the understanding of how these processes work, the creation of practical tools, such as the chemical-resistant shirts, may not be too far into the future. In fact, Thayumanavan said, they could only be 20 or 25 years away.

“I think we will definitely make a dent in the field, but I am also sure that we need to make more investments,” Thayumanavan said in a phone interview. “We are hoping we will at least create enough excitement in the field by making those significant dents that there will be the desire to invest more.”

Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.
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