Years before soldiers get a super glue, a new way to make fresh water or a more precise sensor, a small army of scientists conducts research so fundamental it sometimes begins with a molecule.
This work is done by more than 1,000 scientists and researchers at 250 universities in the U.S. and internationally. Funded by the Army, the research and experiments are helping dig deeper into ideas, discoveries and concepts that someday could meet a need.
Their research is not fast. It can take two or three decades to go from concept to testing and application, and discoveries that seem perfect for one use may end up being better for another. But the concepts that emerge are the first steps to enhancing or creating useful gear or applications for soldiers or discovering something that could play a role in a larger national security context.
With such basic research, “finding out that something doesn’t work is just as good as finding out that something works, because it helps you in solving the problem,” said Barton Halpern, director of the Army Research Office (ARO), an element of the U.S Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, which funds the projects.
Headquartered at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, the ARO is 70 years old and is staffed by about 100 people. Teams of scientists and engineers manage thousands of grant programs in disciplines such as earth, chemical, computing, ballistic, human, network information, propulsion, social sciences, engineering and material manufacturing.
Advances gleaned by the research office’s projects also become part of a knowledge pipeline that feeds into a network of Army research organizations. The scientific outcomes have the potential to be implemented quickly or become part of the building blocks for future capabilities, Halpern said.
“We’re trying to maximize the [ARO’s] investments to accelerate the knowledge until you can do something or can’t do something, or if we come up with a widget, how do we get that into the field, into the soldier’s hands?” Halpern said. “We’re chartered to build the future, to create and direct scientific discoveries for revolutionary new Army capabilities.”
Here’s a look at some of the projects funded by the Army Research Office:
A self-healing material patterned after a protein found in squid ring teeth is showing potential for repairs of myriad materials in the field. It’s not known how the adhesive would be implemented, but ideas are being tested by scientists at Penn State and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany.
The tiny teeth are in the rings of the suction cups of the tentacles used by squid to grip and snatch prey. By turning the teeth protein into a biosynthetic polymer and replicating its properties, the substance might become a sort of super glue that can repair parts, fabrics and other materials stressed by repetitive motion, much as a squid regenerates a lost tentacle.
Stephanie McElhinny, ARO biochemistry program manager in charge of the research, said this self-healing capability found in nature could be incorporated or embedded into an existing material. “We are sort of envisioning this as a way to integrate with other materials so that you could incorporate that property on top of what the material already does for you,” McElhinny said.
If a crack or tear occurs on a vehicle part, robot or even a uniform, she said, an instant repair is not envisioned; rather, the affected part of the item would be treated with water, a laser light or heat to activate the repair. Scientists have demonstrated this capability in the lab with a small batch of the synthetic glue that heals quickly. The next step is to scale up that capability in a larger lab. McElhinny estimates it would take 10–15 years to get this self-healing biopolymer to a stage where it could be incorporated into materials used operationally.
Making Clean Water
As the Army prepares for a future battlefield where troops will have to operate in small groups and austere conditions, the quest for lightweight, durable materials is a never-ending endeavor. This includes the weighty materials, such as fuel and water, that keep vehicles and soldiers on the move.
In an ARO-funded experiment at the University of Rochester, New York, a lightweight, super-wicking, light-absorbing aluminum panel has been developed that could become part of the answer to water production in remote areas. A black panel that’s a little bigger than a laptop can evaporate and purify contaminated water to generate about a half-gallon of drinking water with 12 hours of sunlight, said Evan Runnerstrom, ARO program manager for materials design. The panel itself is no heavier than two pieces of stacked aluminum foil, and because it’s black, it’s highly absorbent.
With the panel facing the sun and an edge of the panel dipped into contaminated water, the water begins to get wicked up against gravity as the panel heats up. The heat begins to evaporate the water, he explained.
“The action is just happening on the surface of the metal, so there’s not necessarily any electronics or anything else that needs to be carried along with that aluminum panel,” he said. In tests, it was found that the panel can remove heavy metals, dyes and bacteria, but it isn’t meant to produce large quantities of water. A collection system for the clean water is also under development, but the discovery of the black aluminum panel will likely become part of the Army’s ongoing effort to find solutions to water purification in the field, Runnerstrom said.
TBI Recovery Discovery
When it comes to knowing how the human body works, there would seem to be few, if any, scientific advances to be made. But less than a decade ago, scientists discovered how the brain cleanses itself of toxins—and the consequences of that system’s failure.
During sleep, a process in a network known as the glymphatic system pumps cerebrospinal fluid through brain tissue, clearing out waste. The system goes bonkers during a traumatic event, such as a stroke or brain injury, flooding and swelling the brain. But scientists haven’t nailed down the reason why or how to reverse it. In an ongoing study at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, funded in part by the ARO, neuroscientists focus on what the glymphatic system means for soldiers who suffer traumatic brain injury.
“There isn’t much known about it yet. Not many people have heard of it. It’s a new discovery on a system that plays some role in excreting waste from the brain,” said Frederick Gregory, ARO program manager for the neurophysiology of cognition initiative. The discovery, he said, made it “attractive to think about injury” and the glymphatic system’s role in dealing with the toxins scientists know are released during a traumatic event.
But how the system works and why “is the million-dollar question,” he said. “If you’re able to understand how this system works and can explore in some way [how to] increase the flow through the glymphatic system, you might be able to clear out some of that toxic buildup and maybe help a recovery.”
An experiment on the International Space Station involves testing a smart fiber that, in addition to allowing astronauts to feel through their space suits, could one day be a battlefield tool for soldiers, according to an article published by the Army. The fabric, developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, is so sensitive to vibration that it can detect impacts from microscopic, high-velocity space particles. Soldiers might use this smart-fiber technology to detect blasts and as a sort of super microphone: Its sensitivity can accurately pinpoint the location, and direction, of a gunshot.
“Delivering revolutionary methodologies that result from foundational science is always one of our main priorities, and the opportunity to collect data from space dust using a fiber sensor as a key building block of the system is truly exciting,” James Burgess, ARO program manager for the research at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, said in the article.
The fabric works because it has thermally drawn vibration-sensitive fibers that can turn mechanical vibration energy into electric energy. Researchers found that when tiny meteoroids or space debris come into contact with the fabric, the fabric vibrates, and the acoustic fiber generates an electrical signal.
The project is part of an initiative to build next-generation fibers and fabrics for soldiers’ uniforms and battle gear with the potential to detect physiological reactions as well as external elements such as gunshots and explosions, the article said.
More Powerful Thermal Imaging
Thermal imaging devices used by soldiers to detect heat on the battlefield, such as that emanating from the human body, have the potential to become 100,000 times more sensitive with the development of a new, more powerful microwave radiation sensor. The research team working on this includes scientists from Harvard University, the Spain-based Institute of Photonic Sciences, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Korea-based Pohang University of Science and Technology, according to an Army article. With better detection of microwave radiation, scientists found marked improvements could be possible, not only with thermal imaging but also in electronic warfare, radio communications and radar.
“The microwave bolometer developed under this project is so sensitive that it is capable of detecting a single microwave photon, which is the smallest amount of energy in nature,” Joe Qiu, ARO program manager for solid-state electronics and electromagnetics, said in the article. “This technology will potentially enable new capabilities for applications such as quantum sensing and radar and ensure the U.S. Army maintains spectral dominance in the foreseeable future.”
With further investment in the research, battlefield testing could take place in 10–20 years, Qiu said.