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DARPA ‘ICE’ program kicks off at ERDC-CRREL

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“Ice,” says Dr. Emily Asenath-Smith, “can be either a friend, or a foe. You can make it work for you, or it can work against you.”

Making ice work “for” and not “against” the U.S. military is the mission behind Ice Control for cold Environments (ICE), a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program that recently kicked off at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, New Hampshire.

ICE aims to manipulate ice material properties to safeguard military assets and personnel, bolstering operational effectiveness in harsh cold conditions.

To do that, a team of researchers from the Department of Defense, academia and the private sector plan to leverage biological adaptations to cold environments to develop novel biologically sourced and inspired materials. The goal is to develop innovative technologies that facilitate sustained operations in cold regions. Protecting troops from frostbite or preventing uncontrolled ice buildup from negatively impacting the performance of military vehicles and equipment are just two of the many challenges caused by cold temperatures that researchers aim to solve.

ERDC-CRREL will serve a crucial role in the program by acting as the Independent Verification & Validation (IV&V) partner. In this capacity, ERDC-CRREL will work with DARPA and its performer teams to interrogate newly developed high-throughput test beds and verify the ice modulating properties of any new technologies developed. CRREL will also be charged with analyzing results from the disparate tests conducted by the teams and developing an in-house analytical framework to integrate all the results.

“The research teams on this project are spread out in labs across the country, so CRREL’s role as verifier — and really the nexus of all data coming in — is vital to the success of this program,” said Dr. Ivan Beckman, acting CRREL director. “This a great opportunity to showcase the capabilities of CRREL’s research scientists and facilities and strengthen and build partnerships across the scientific community.”

ERDC-CRREL was chosen as the project’s IV&V because of its expertise in developing innovative solutions for science and engineering challenges posed by some of the most extreme environments found on earth.

“CRREL has a longstanding reputation for cold regions research, ice adhesion, and ice materials science,” said Asenath-Smith, whose Advanced Materials Team will lead CRREL’s efforts on the project.  “We are the federal government’s only cold regions research organization, so we have a well-documented history of assessing, analyzing, and transitioning technologies for cold regions operations. This is our key mission space.”

Dr. Robyn Barbato, a collaborator with DARPA and the performer teams, and members of her ERDC-CRREL Soil Microbiology Group are supporting ICE by providing the program access to the laboratory’s ICE COLD Library for Biotechnology.

The library is a collection of microorganisms — for example bacteria and fungi — originating from the Arctic, Antarctica and high-altitude regions that will help provide consistent and complete characterization of the isolates developed by the ICE program, enabling more efficient screening of microorganisms fitting extreme cold weather application requirements and metrics by the ICE performers. This information will be used to select candidate microorganisms that offer promising ice control characteristics.

The kickoff meeting brought together more than 40 scientists, researchers, and military personnel for panel discussions, team coordination, and demonstrations of laboratory capabilities for related ice experiments.

Participants included representatives from DARPA, ERDC-CRREL, Michigan Tech, Montana State University, North Dakota State, University of Florida, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc., Netrias, LLC, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army Futures Command, U.S. Army National Guard, and the Montana Army National Guard.

“Feedback from the kickoff event was exceptionally positive,” said Asenath-Smith. “I got the sense that attendees were really impressed with the facilities and support personnel, as well as with the demonstrations and laboratory capabilities.”

Now that the project has launched and the performer teams have returned to their respective laboratories, the next step is for ERDC-CRREL to prepare and send them reference materials — solutions containing undisclosed organic materials — to validate their test and experiment approaches. Once they receive the controls, the performer teams will freeze the solutions and then run experiments in their unique test systems and report the data back to CRREL who will aggregate the data, providing a means of calibrating testing methods of all laboratories across the project.

“That,” said Asenath-Smith, “is when the fun really begins.”

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