May 24, 2012 at 1:54 PM ET
The U.S. military is plowing $90 million into a university-led research program to rapidly accelerate the development of lighter and stronger materials to better protect soldiers and vehicles.
The same tools that enable the development of this next generation protective gear could, of course, also be used to develop more lethal weapons – bullets designed to penetrate the toughest materials.
“It is a never-ending escalation on both sides,” Kaushik Bhattacharya, a professor of materials science at the California Institute of Technology, told me Wednesday.
Traditional material development
The Johns Hopkins University led program leverages recent advances in materials science, the computational power to simulate new materials, and high-tech lab tools to build and test physical representations of the stuff.
Until recently, the development of new materials has largely been an observational process – scientists use a combination of intuition, expertise and experience to modify interesting materials and test them.
Based on those tests, some educated guesses are made for the second round of modifications and tests, and so on. A decade or two later, there’s a new super material that permeates everything from clothing to cars.
The process is similar to traditional plant breeding where crop scientists select lines to grow from one year to the next based on how they look in experimental plots.
Rapid development in plant genetics is allowing crop scientists to select lines based on genetic markers, allowing them to accelerate the selection process and the release of new varieties.
“There are people who talk about the materials genome,” Bhattacharya said. In the case of materials, instead of an alphabet soup of DNA, there’s a hierarchy of structures.
That is, any given material looks and behaves differently from the nanoscale to the macroscale.
“If I take any piece of material and I look at it under a microscope I see something, if I look at it with a transmission electron microscope I see something else, and if I look at it with a high resolution transmission electron microscope I would see a very different structure,” Bhattacharya explained.
The properties of any material are features drawn from throughout this hierarchy, he added.
The combination of faster, more powerful computers to do simulations and tools such as high-speed cameras, high-resolution microscopes, and advances in materials synthesis allows materials scientists to better understand and manipulate this hierarchy to design new materials.
The goal of the program is to “very significantly accelerate the timeframe in which new materials are developed,” Bhattacharya said.
He and his university partners are developing tools that will enable the Army to build the next generation armor (or weapons) in a development cycle of perhaps a few years compared to a few decades.
And while the military needs and funding make this research possible, the same technology should lead to lighter and stronger materials for use in everything from cars to laptop cases, Bhattacharya noted.
“As often happens, the science is driven by extreme applications but then they permeate everything.”
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.