Sometimes it’s not the biggest weapon systems that win battles for the U.S. military, but some of the smallest-scale technology involved in creating various components used in making weapon systems.
Researchers from the Department of Defense, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and several major institutions of higher education across the United States partnered together recently with a goal of harnessing the capabilities of new technologies arising from the emerging field of synthetic biology, which can operate precisely and efficiently at the nano-scale.
To have an idea of just how small a nano is, the website www.nano.gov shows in the International System of Units, that the prefix “nano” means one-billionth. Therefore one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. To understand just how small that is, here are some examples:
· A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
· A strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter
· There are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch
· A human hair is approximately 80,000- 100,000 nanometers wide
The efforts of this group of people are part of the Synthetic Biology for Materials Challenge, an innovative effort to attract new ideas and develop plans for using synthetic biology to produce high-value Defense products.
According to Dr. Rajesh Naik, team leader for biological materials research in AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate here, the effort was led by the Office of Technical Intelligence within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.
“A 2014 study from the Office of Technical Intelligence within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, entitled “Technical Assessment: Synthetic Biology” recommended that the Department of Defense take advantage of opportunities at the intersection of synthetic biology and materials,” said Naik.
Based on these recommendations, the Open Innovation Award Challenge was developed and was able to entice researchers into thinking about cutting-edge ideas in the nascent area of synthetic biology and Defense-relevant materials, he added.
According to Dr. Naik, their research efforts targeted metamaterials, which allow designers to create materials with defined compositions and morphology for antennas, sensors, and other applications.
Producing some classes of metamaterials requires engineering at extremely small scales with high precision, meaning that components are currently prohibitively expensive or impossible to manufacture at scale with today’s conventional methods.
“Synthetic biology operates very well at small scales with selectivity and specificity and, as a result, has the potential to help the DOD address a variety of manufacturing challenges,” Naik.
According to the challenge guidelines, the efforts of the teams were focused on a subset of metamaterial applications, calling for research plans to develop and produce specialized nanoparticles that would enable improved antennas and optical sensors.
At the end of the challenge, the following winners of the Synthetic Biology for Materials Challenge were announced:
· 1st place – Harvard University team of Dr. Pamela Silver and Dr. Daniel G. Nocera;
· 2nd place – Massachusetts Institute of Technology team of Dr. Christopher A. Voigt and Dr. D. Benjamin Gordon;
· 3rd place – University of California at Riverside team of Dr. Ian Wheeldon, Dr. Phillip Christopher & Dr. Elisa Franco in collaboration with Dr. Cynthia Collins from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and
· 4th place – Northwestern University team of Mr. Karthik Sekar and Dr. Javin P. Oza.
The prize winners were invited to a special Technical Interchange Meeting with Army, Navy, and Air Force researchers, as well as program managers from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and industry representatives working in synthetic biology.
This collaborative effort was organized and facilitated by the Wright Brothers Institute, a non-profit organization that helps AFRL explore new methods to achieve its mission.
The Technical Interchange Meeting enabled the participants to come together and synthesize the winning ideas into detailed plans that would take current research and develop it into testable products for specific high-value antennas and sensors over one to five-year periods.
These plans provide DOD the opportunity to put these ideas into practice and realize near-term gains from the emerging field of synthetic biology.
AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate leads a comprehensive research and development program with more than 1,000 full time scientists and engineers operating over 300 laboratory modules here at Wright-Patterson AFB and at Tyndall AFB, Florida.