April 30, 2012

Innovating to safeguard troops

$90 million institute will study ‘extreme events’

K.T. Ramesh is founding director of the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

The Johns Hopkins University has won an award worth up to $90 million from the U.S. Army to tap the expertise of the nation’s top academic researchers to help the Army develop new lightweight materials to better protect soldiers and vehicles. Toward this goal, Johns Hopkins is forming a new institute where researchers will try to understand precisely what happens when impacts on materials result in “extreme dynamic environments.”

The Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute will focus, in particular, 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.

“The vision of the institute is to tackle the science issues associated with extreme events and, in this case, to work with the Army to better protect our troops,” said K.T. Ramesh, the Alonzo G. Decker, Jr. Professor of Science and Engineering in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering, founding director of the institute and a professor of mechanical engineering.

“This is how I think about our effort with the Army,” Ramesh said. “Captain America needs a new shield, and we’re going to work with the Army to build it.”

Ramesh said that the new institute’s researchers will delve into the basic science—down to the atomic level—of what happens to metals, ceramics, polymers and other materials that are subjected to an extreme impact. “What affects the material is the huge amount of energy landing all at once,” Ramesh said. “You can’t develop a new protective material until you can understand what happens to it in extreme environments. Yet we must be able to design new materials if we want to protect ourselves from yet-unforeseen threats.”

To launch this effort, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory on April 16 agreed to provide up to $90 million to a consortium of scientists from American universities, national laboratories and private industry, all affiliated with the new Johns Hopkins institute, to collaborate closely on this research with Army scientists. Among the key partner institutions are Caltech, the University of Delaware and Rutgers University. The program is planned for a five-year initial study, and if successful, it may be renewed for an additional five years.

“Johns Hopkins is proud to carry out this work on behalf of the U.S. Army,” said Lloyd B. Minor, the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “Bringing together experts from many disciplines, the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute will greatly enhance our understanding of protective materials, ultimately leading to better ways to protect our troops.”

John M. Miller, director of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, said, “Designing new, transformational materials for our soldiers is the aim of our Enterprise for Multiscale Research of Materials. Our two recent awards, in Materials in Extreme Dynamic Environments to the Johns Hopkins University consortium and in Multiscale Multidisciplinary Modeling of Electronic Materials to the University of Utah, will work together to provide a strong foundation for ARL’s Enterprise for Multiscale Research of Materials. [These awards] also [show] the Army’s commitment to the national Materials Genome Initiative.”

For Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering, the monetary award is among the largest in the school’s history. The Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute will conduct basic research across the disciplines of mechanical engineering, materials science, civil engineering, aerospace engineering and physics.

“The award not only recognizes K.T. Ramesh’s outstanding leadership and vision but the terrific breadth and depth of expertise provided by our interdisciplinary Johns Hopkins research team and our partner institutions,” said Nicholas P. Jones, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School. “Receiving it provides us with the means to advance basic science to tackle some of today’s toughest security problems. We are honored to be recognized for our ability to make a difference in this area.”

The institute will also include a strong educational and training component. Students, postdoctoral fellows and scientists from the Army and other universities will help conduct the research. Lectures, workshops, symposia, research reviews and online mechanisms will be used to exchange ideas and best practices. The institute’s intent is to teach the world how to think about materials in extreme environments, particularly those associated with impact events.

Lightweight protection materials that are just as effective as the heavier ones available today would be very valuable, but designing such materials is a major challenge. The institute’s researchers plan to 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.

Ramesh stressed that the institute’s emphasis is on conducting fundamental research, not making specific materials. He said that the goal is “to produce a way of thinking that will allow the design of lightweight protective material systems that can be used for extreme dynamic conditions.”

The institute’s new ways of thinking would also be useful in planning for catastrophic events, Ramesh said. If a stray asteroid was heading toward Earth, for example, institute researchers could help choose the best strategies that could divert or break up the asteroid. The institute’s approaches would also help predict the size of dust particles emitted by volcanic eruptions such as the one in Iceland that recently halted air travel. The dust data could have helped officials figure out when it was safe to fly. A similar approach would have been useful in assessing the risks from explosions such as those at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan last year.

“Our vision is twofold,” Ramesh said. “The institute looks far into the future to build the basic science needed to address future threats before they become evident, while at the same time developing and providing the science and engineering tools needed to address the dynamic problems of today. We seek to improve the human condition in an increasingly insecure world by providing government, industry and national institutions with science-based tools for designing protection and mitigating risk.”

The new institute’s labs, offices and collaborative rooms will occupy roughly a third of Malone Hall, a 56,000-square-foot research facility that is being built on the Homewood campus. Until its completion in 2014, the institute will operate in existing facilities on campus.