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MIT contest designed to help soldiers

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's first annual Soldier Design Competition, an auditorium of students listened intently to a towering paratrooper in a buzz cut. While he spoke, students took turns trying on his Kevlar vest. The body armor, made of a carbon composite material, weighs 16 pounds -- about the heft of a typical college backpack -- and it is hard to imagine strapping it on during a hot day in Iraq.

The paratrooper, Lieutenant Col. Charles Dean, who wore the jacket and 90 pounds of additional gear when he fought in Afghanistan last year, said it was unbelievably uncomfortable, but better than no protection at all.

That's why Dean was at the event: To see if any of the fresh-faced students before him can help the Army keep its soldiers safe without weighing them down so much. Dean wants them to use their engineering creativity to design better protective clothing, backpacks and even quiet Velcro that won't attract the enemy's attention when ripped open on the battlefield.

The prize: $5,000 and the chance to put their technology on the market.

Each five-member team -- which must include at least two students and be rounded out by others with an MIT connection -- has until Monday to come up with a rough scheme. A panel of scientists and senior military personnel will winnow those ideas down on Nov. 17 to semifinalists, who will get $750 to spend on materials to build a prototype. First-, second- and third-prize winners will be declared in February.

Competition categories include making bolt cutters that are smaller and lighter than the current Army-issued version, which weigh 10 pounds. Soldiers have been buying their tools from Home Depot instead.

And then there is the "holy grail," a self-cooling soldier suit.

"Managing a person's temperature while they work is a hard problem," said Edwin "Ned" Thomas, MIT professor of Materials Science and director of the school's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. "Solutions can't be bulky. If you are in Iraq and Afghanistan and the air temperature is 110 degrees, and you are carrying a rucksack and body armor, your body temperature may go up to 125 degrees."

"The idea was to tap into the talent pool of undergrads and get students thinking about real Army problems," Thomas said. The contest is sponsored by corporate partners such as DuPont, Dow Corning and Raytheon.

WENDY WOLFSON

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