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A Lighter Load for Soldiers

October 2013

Johns Hopkins, Army Team Up to Develop Lightweight Material

Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute Johns Hopkins University

Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute
Johns Hopkins University

Imagine for a moment that you are a soldier stationed in the Middle East where temperatures can easily exceed 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. And in this extreme environment, you are wearing full fatigues, heavy combat boots and protective armor while carrying a heavy pack of supplies.

Wouldn’t it be great if your protective armor, for example, could be lightweight while still providing the same protection from enemy fire? Well, that’s just what the research scientists at Johns Hopkins University are hoping to accomplish, thanks to an innovative partnership with the Army Research Laboratory.

Johns Hopkins, along with nine other universities, as well as leading national laboratories, such as The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and other institutions, will benefit from a $90 million grant to research how to develop lightweight materials to better protect soldiers and vehicles. “It’s a unique alliance, and we will be the lead organization while working together with other universities and Army scientists from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory,” says Victor M. Nakano, Ph.D., executive program director of the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute. “What makes this program unique is the high level of collaboration between the researchers from the consortium of universities, institutes and the Army scientists.”

Scott McGhee, senior administrative manager at HEMI, notes that the grant is initially for five years, with an additional five-year option.

HEMI’s research focuses on what happens to protective materials at the moment of intense impact, when a large amount of energy enters a small space in a very short period of time. Researchers are looking into the science of what happens to metals, ceramics, polymers and other materials that are subjected toan extreme impact.

“The vision of the institute is to tackle the science issues associated with extreme events and in this case to work with the ARL to better protect our troops,” said K. T. Ramesh, the Alonzo G. Decker, Jr. Professor of Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering, founding director of the institute and a professor of mechanical engineering, in a release announcing the grant. “This is how I think about our effort with the ARL,” Ramesh said. “Captain America needs a new shield, and we’re going to work with the Army to build it.”

Nakano served 22 years as a U.S. Army officer leading research and acquisition programs in multiple Department of Defense organizations. He says that he believes his military background will be an asset for HEMI. “I understand the Army research and operational cultures … it’s very different than academia,” he says.

Nakano notes that HEMI is a young institution that was formed in April 2012 and that the program with the ARL is just one element of what HEMI does. The institute focuses on four different areas of research – extreme dynamic environments (as found in personnel, vehicle and homeland protection); extreme conditions in human tissues (with applications, for example, to traumatic brain injury); extreme temperatures (for example in aerospace applications); and planetary scale impact problems such as asteroid hazard mitigation. The research being conducted via the ARL grant falls into the extreme dynamic environments sector that studies automobile and aircraft crashes, bullet impact, foreign object damage and the effects of a projectile hitting armor plating. “We also work with NASA to study planetary impact, such as a meteoroid hitting Earth,” Nakano notes.

The importance of developing lightweight protection materials, however, is an area that Nakano can personally relate to – he served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in Baghdad, Iraq. “In Iraq, I would be carrying 20 pounds of body armor, so if we can develop lightweight materials, it will make soldiers happier and more agile, while keeping them safe. Also, the armor plating on military vehicles is very heavy, so if we can make that lighter, the vehicle will carry more and can be deployed around the world faster to respond to conflicts, for example,”
Nakano says.

According to HEMI, the institute’s researchers will use lab experiments and computer models to gain a better understanding of how materials behave when subjected to a high velocity impact. With results from this lab research, the team hopes to develop and test new lightweight materials that offer enhanced protection. HEMI will conduct fundamental research that can be applied in a variety of materials, and Nakano notes that once the research is complete, the findings will be transitioned to the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Nakano’s primary roles at HEMI include securing corporate sponsorships and working with private industry. “Businesses and private industry want to know what we are doing at HEMI. If a company is looking to manufacture new, lightweight armor for soldiers or vehicles, for example, and they know the direction the research is going, they will be in a better position to bid on military contracts,” Nakano says.

McGhee stresses that “the key component of this grant is the collaborative effort with the ARL, academia and corporations.” And with the effects of sequestration, reduced defense budgets and a pared-down military, these partnerships between the U.S. military, academia and businesses are more important than ever to deliver on what is the most crucial mission – protecting the warfighter. I95