What do carbon nanohorns, photonic band gap materials,
electroactive polymers, and electrospun second skin have to
do with logistics? They very well may provide the Army with
lightweight, reliable systems that revolutionize how logisticians
support the warfighter.
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a three-part
series on future technology and its potential impact on logistics.
The first article, in the July–August issue, introduced
the Revolution in Atoms, Molecules, and Photons (RAMP) and
explored the implications of RAMP for energy production and
delivery. This article introduces the extraordinary “designer” materials
that RAMP research promises and explores the implications of
designer materials for improving equipment readiness and reducing
demands on the supply chain and distribution processes. The
final article, in the November–December issue, will address
research and development initiatives that are leading to revolutionary
capabilities in “knowledge on demand” that will “Connect
the Logistician” globally.
is 99.38 percent air (above), but it can hold
4,000 times its own weight (for instance, the brick
below) and act as a heat barrier (below the brick,
protecting crayons from a torch).
As a nation at war, the United States must sustain
its technological superiority if it is to maintain its dominance
on the battlefield. Our forces, faced with an extremely adaptive
enemy that ignores territorial boundaries, need novel, robust
capabilities that are not easily countered. Research being
conducted at the atomic, molecular, and photonic levels offers
the means to design materials with revolutionary properties.
These materials in turn will make possible equipment and capabilities
that will assist in the triumph over our enemies.
For example, the way molecules with various shapes and surface
features organize into patterns on the nanoscale level determines
important material properties, including electrical conductivity,
optical qualities, and mechanical strength. By controlling
how that nanoscale patterning unfolds, researchers are learning
to design new materials with remarkable properties. It is these
revolutionary “materials by design” that will provide
our forces with materials that are lightweight, reliable, and
superconducting and that possess other properties that will
enable new and greater capabilities. Researchers who once dreamed
of making molecular-scale versions of transistors, wires, and
other micro-electronic components on chips are now seeing this
done routinely throughout the world.
Materials by Design
The emerging fields of nanoscience and nano-engineering are
leading to unprecedented understanding and control over the
fundamental building blocks of all physical things. This development
is likely to change the way almost everything—from vaccines
to computers to vehicles to objects not yet imagined—is
designed and built. One group of these “designer” materials
is called metamaterials.
Metamaterials are artificially constructed materials with qualities
and responses that do not occur in nature. The functions of
these new materials derive from extrinsic inhomogeneities (nonuniform
structures) that can take many forms, including voids, particles,
wires, and layers, and that can create structures whose properties
transcend those of natural materials or any of their constituents.
High-performance, low-frequency (less than 1 megahertz) magnetic
metamaterials are being researched and developed for use in
power electronics, electronic propulsion, and power generation.
Novel high-frequency (greater than 1 megahertz) metamaterials
with superior microwave and optical properties are being researched
and developed for communication, radar, and wireless-power-transfer
polymers can operate like biological muscles.
Metamaterials possess amazing characteristics. Some of these
materials turn our traditional perspective of the world upside
down. “Left-handed” metamaterials are a case
in point. For example, at an early stage in life, we learn
extension cords, which are made of metal wires, are used
to conduct electricity from the wall outlet to an appliance
as a lamp, television, or toaster. We also learned to associate
electrical conductivity with metals, normally the copper
in extension cords. However, RAMP research has produced designer
materials that fly in the face of our long-held understanding
that materials such as plastics cannot and do not conduct
With the advent of materials-by-design research and the discovery
of a category of materials known as left-handed metamaterials
(which possess negative mirror-image, or “left-handed,” properties
compared to naturally existing materials), our understanding
of material properties is quickly changing. In other words,
it may now be possible to produce plastic metamaterials that
superconductors of electricity.
Since plastics generally are
significantly lighter than electrical conducting metals, it
is now conceivable that the traditional metal electrical
in vehicles and equipment could be replaced with plastic wiring.
Imagine the weight reduction in a vehicle that uses lightweight
plastics instead of the traditional metal wires to conduct
The benefits of left-handed metamaterial plastics include not
only the obvious reduction in overall system weight but also
orders-of-magnitude reductions in electrical resistance resulting
from their superconducting properties. Large drops in electrical
resistance translate directly into reduced thermal (heat) buildup
and major increases in the mean time between failures of electrical
components. This, of course, is very desirable to both combat
forces actively engaged on the battlefield and the personnel
who maintain the combat readiness of their equipment.
As we design new combat and combat support systems, it seems
prudent that we consider these new plastic metamaterials for
• Increased availability of combat-ready vehicles and equipment.
• Reductions in the life-cycle operations and sustainment costs for vehicles
and equipment that could save billions of dollars.
• Decreased demand for logistics support, with considerable secondary effects:
Fewer parts will need to be procured, stored, shipped, distributed, accounted
for, and tracked; throughput demands on supply chain and distribution processes
will be reduced, including decreased fuel consumption associated with reduced
vehicle weight; and requirements for maintainers on or near the battlespace
microchip incorporates microphotonic devices made
of PBG materials.
Photonic Band Gap Materials
One type of metamaterial of particular interest to logisticians
is photonic band gap (PBG) materials, which could significantly
improve reliability in electronic components. PBG materials
offer simplification and improved efficiencies in microchips.
Recent advances in microstructuring technology have allowed
controlled engineering of three-dimensional PBG structures
at the near-infrared, as well as the visible, regions of
the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. Light in certain
engineered dielectric microstructures can flow in a way similar
to electrical current in semiconductor chips. [“Dielectric” refers
to a material that is an electrical insulator or that can
sustain an electrical field with a minimum dissipation of
power.] These microstructures provide a foundation for the
development of novel microphotonic devices and the integration
of such devices into an optical microchip. (See photo above.)
The current state of PBG research suggests that this field
is at a stage comparable to the early years of semiconductor
technology, shortly before the invention of the solid-state
electronic transistor. If this analogy holds, we may find PBG
materials at the heart of a 21st century revolution in optical
information technology, similar to the revolution in electronics
that occurred over the latter half of the 20th century.
PBG materials are being used to revolutionize electronic chips
and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. (The final
RAMP article in the November–December
issue of Army Logistician will discuss this subject in greater
The recent emergence of electroactive polymers (EAP) material
with large displacement response changed the understanding
of these materials and their potential capability. [“Displacement
response” refers to a substance’s response to being
moved from a normal position.] The main characteristic of EAP
is their operational similarity to biological muscles, particularly
their resilience and ability to induce large actuation [bringing
into action] strains. (See photo at far left.) Unique robotic
components and miniature devices are being explored in which
EAP serve as actuators to achieve new capabilities.
The most attractive feature of EAP is their ability to emulate
biological muscles with a high degree of toughness, large actuation
forces, and inherent vibration damping. This similarity, which
gained EAP the name “artificial muscles,” offers
the potential of developing biologically inspired robots. Such
biomimetic robots come in various sizes and shapes and can
be made highly maneuverable, noiseless, and agile. Effective
EAP also offer the potential of turning science fiction ideas
into reality much faster than would be feasible with any other
conventional actuation mechanisms.
Cagey Crystals and Aerogel
Cagey crystals are materials that are characterized by randomly
shaking atoms. They could be crucial to developing materials
that are able to conduct electricity but not heat. That ability
is one key to improving the reliability of electrical components.
was formed by joining an “even” rolled
graphic sheet (above the joint), which is predicted
to be semiconducting, to a “spiral” rolled
sheet (below the joint), which is predicted to show
Theory predicts that this would act as a nanodiode.
Aerogel is a transparent material that is 99.38 percent air
and can hold 4,000 times its own weight without deformation.
(See photos on pages 24 and 25.) It is a heat barrier that
could be used as a heat shield in combat vehicles or as a
thermal blanket for munitions. Aerogel is commercially
and could help to solve the weight issues associated with
the Army’s Future Combat Systems.
Nanoscale materials, such as nanotubes, nanopipettes,
nanocones, and nanohorns, are finding applications in electronics.
These applications offer such desirable benefits as dramatic
reductions in electrical resistance and the associated
thermal buildup that is a major cause of failure in electronic
components. Nanodiodes hold the promise of having a 20,000
times reduction in electrical resistance compared to today’s
electrical circuits. (See photo on page 27.) Similar applications
of superconducting carbon nanotubes in batteries significantly
extend the usable energy in those batteries. This application
of carbon nanotubes is being used today as nearly 60 percent
of all current cell phone batteries incorporate carbon
Extending the usable energy in batteries will
increase battery life, which will reduce the frequency
of recharging or replacing batteries on the battlefield
and the demand for battery resupply by logisticians.
are used to make a tiny fuel cell with 10 times the
energy capacity of a lithium battery. (“Pt” is
the chemical symbol for platinum, “C” for
carbon, “H” for hydrogen, and “O” for
oxygen; “e” stands for energy, and "nm" for
Scientists have developed a tiny fuel cell for mobile terminals
using the minute and unique structure of the carbon nanohorn.
(See diagram above.) This fuel cell has attained significant
improvements over conventional activated-carbon terminals.
The carbon nanohorn fuel cell has about 10 times the energy
capacity of a lithium battery. This fuel cell could power
continued use of a personal computer for several days,
as opposed to only several hours. Materials such as carbon
nanohorns offer the same logistics benefits as other nanoscale
materials: greatly reduced requirements for conducting
energy resupply missions.
exploring a possible transition from the bulky 300-pound
spacesuit of the Apollo era to a "second skin" suit
for Mars exploration.
Electrospun Second Skin
Future space explorers may apply a spray-on “second
skin”—an organic, biodegradable layer offering
protection in extremely dusty planetary environments. Second-skin
spacesuit research is supported by the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA) Institute for Advanced Concepts.
(See photo above.)
The microfine fibers produced by electrospinning randomly
collect into thin, nonwoven fiber mats that behave like microporous
membranes. The objective of the second-skin initiative is
to use electrospinning to produce seamless garments that
perform multiple functions, such as providing flammable,
chemical, and environmental protection. This will be done
by blending the fibers into electrospinlaced layers in combination
with polymer coatings. The second skin will incorporate electrically
actuated artificial muscle fibers to enhance human strength
This spray-on coating also could be used to protect cargo
shipments or as a second skin to enhance logisticians’ physical
strength for handling cargo. It could augment Soldiers’ strength
to the point that the need for materials-handling equipment
to handle certain configured loads or classes of supply might
be eliminated. Electrospun coating also could be used to
hermetically seal cargo and thus protect it from the environment,
dust, heat, cold, and humidity. Since this material biodegrades,
it could eliminate the traditional problem of residual dunnage.
NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts and the Army’s
Natick Soldier Systems Center are actively researching and
developing the manufacturing technologies that will provide
has given us the tools . . . to play with the ultimate
toy box of nature—atoms and molecules. Everything
is made from it . . . The possibilities to create
new things appear limitless.
Horst L. Störmer,
Lucent Technologies and
1998 Nobel Prize in Physics
Other Designer Materials
Materials with an unprecedented combination of strength,
toughness, and lightness will make all kinds of land, sea,
air, and space vehicles and associated combat equipment lighter
and more fuel efficient. Aircraft designed with lighter and
stronger nanostructured materials will be able to fly longer
missions and carry more payload. Plastics that wear less,
because their molecular chains are trapped by ceramic nano-particles,
will lead to the development of materials that last a lifetime.
Some long-term researchers are working to create self-repairing
metallic alloys that automatically fill in and reinforce
tiny cracks that otherwise can grow and merge into larger
ones. These alloys could help prevent catastrophic equipment
and component failures.
Other materials of interest to the Army logistician include—
• Molecular layer-by-layer crystal growth, which can be used to make new
generations of more efficient solar cells.
• Selective membranes, which can desalinate seawater inexpensively or provide
other means of producing potable water.
• Chameleon-like camouflage, which can change shape and color to blend
in anywhere, anytime.
• Blood substitutes.
The pervasive RAMP research and development that has been, and is currently being,
conducted will bring about the advent of materials by design. Materials such
as photonic band gap, electroactive polymers, cagey crystals, aerogels, and others
offer the promise of increased component and material reliability; novel sources
of energy; human-like robots capable of performing complex work; electrospun
coatings that not only protect cargo but also protect and enhance the strength
of Soldiers; and new means to communicate. As Army logisticians, we should be
prepared to exploit the potential benefits that designer materials offer.
David E. Scharett is a senior research scientist with the Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory on assignment from the Department
of Energy to the Army Logistics Transformation Agency at
Fort Belvoir, Virginia. A command pilot with experience in
both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, he has over 37 years
of Government service. He has a bachelor’s degree in
engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State
University and a master’s degree from Golden Gate University
and is a graduate of the Air War College.
Robert E. Garrison is a logistics management specialist with
the Army Logistics Transformation Agency, Future Logistics
Division, Science and Technology Team, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
A recently retired chief warrant officer (W–5) with over
32 years of active service in the Army, he has an associate’s
degree in general studies from the University of Maryland,
a bachelor’s degree in vocational education from Southern
Illinois University, and a master’s degree in general
administration from Central Michigan University.