Army's basic investments today impact tomorrow's science

February 05, 2013

Scientists at the Army Research Office (ARO) forecast potential chemical and biological threats of future military conflicts in search of the smartest solutions to ensure the nation's technological superiority.

ARO, an element of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, serves as the Army's premier extramural basic research agency in the engineering, physical, information and life sciences; developing and exploiting innovative advances to insure the nation's technological superiority.

"ARO's role is to invest in the basic science necessary to create new technology for the Army," said Jennifer Becker, Ph.D., Chemical Sciences division chief, ARO. "In some cases the research doesn't lead to something practical, but a program is successful if it explores a good scientific opportunity and has the potential to meet a crucial Army need."

Army science and technology leaders at ARO guide extramural basic research with priorities that come from the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, Program Executive Offices and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Becker said. "ARO builds portfolios and maintain a two-way dialogue with outside researchers throughout the process to ensure clear communication of the Army's needs and of researchers' capabilities."

Department of Defense (DoD) funds allocated to this fundamental research are classified as 6.1 funds. There are a handful of entities that have a budget for basic research, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), ARO and others. The basic research budget estimate for DoD in 2012 was approximately $2 billion of its total research and development budget of roughly $74 billion, with the Army receiving about a quarter of the basic research funding, according to data from the Office of Management and Budget Research and Development.

Basic research proposals from educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and private industry are competitively selected and funded. ARO's research portfolio represents the most long-range Army view, Becker said.

The Army was heavily invested 20 years ago in the fundamental building blocks of what today is known as the wearable chemical agent monitor, a liquid spray that assures decontamination and real-time monitoring for chemical, biological and nuclear threats, said Dr. Stephen Lee, ARL's chief scientist, who last served as a senior scientist and advisor for the ARO.

Enzyme research is another example, Becker said.

ARO accepted a basic research proposal from the University of Pittsburg to generate and explore a series of enzymes with differing responses to temperature and pressure in the early 1990s. Army researchers had a hunch that enzymes could have broad use in sensors, protective membranes, and environmentally friendly catalysts, Lee said.

The research with University of Pittsburg led to the discovery of a functional catalytic buffering system that could be used to rapidly detect the presence of nerve agents. Then, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) took steps to move the discovery along to develop a commercially viable nerve agent sensor, he said.

Dr. Alan Russell with the University of Pittsburg led the research and ultimately formed a private company to manufacture market and distribute enzyme-based sensors in the form of pens that can detect nerve agents. The Chemical Agent Detection Kit was named one of the 10 "Army's Greatest Inventions" for 2003, more than 10 years from the initial basic research proposal, Lee said.

Lee developed and led a program that included the basis for homeland security and defense in the areas of decontamination, detection, and protection, which included the Agentase Chemical Agent Detection Kit.

Metal oxide research had a huge impact at the smallest scale—the nanoscale. In the case of metal oxides in the mid-1980s, ARO envisioned that these materials could have potential for use for protection from and decontamination of chemical and biological agents, Lee said.

Kenneth Klabunde of Kansas State University demonstrated that thermally activated magnesium oxide yields a highly reactive surface capable of destroying immobilizing toxic chemicals that were of interest to DoD, he said.

As Klabunde began to look closer at clusters of metal oxide molecules in the nanometer range, he noticed unique optical and chemical reactive properties. By the 1990s, metal oxide research yielded one of the first nanotechnology products.

Kansas State researchers founded Nanoscale Corporation, which ARO, DTRA and Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) supported. It led to the development of Nanoscale's FAST-ACT decontaminant, a commercially available decontaminant effective against nerve, blood and blister agents.

In 2010, Nanoscale Corporation was awarded a contract to supply M295 Individual Equipment Decontamination Kits to the Army for five years. They have also taken on other defense research contracts in the field of nanochemistry. The fundamental nanoscale metal oxide knowledge derived from the research has implications in the medical field that advance the development of new optical imaging techniques and cancer drugs, Lee said.

Each ARL basic research proposal takes a path uniquely its own based on the determined needs of the Army, funding sources or partners.

Not every research endeavor will result in a product. If it did, it would mean ARO leaders aren't taking enough risks to discover something new. However, many basic research collaborations between the Army, academia and industry culminate in unprecedented capabilities that help Soldiers, the Defense Department and the nation, Becker said.


Last Update / Reviewed: February 5, 2013