US Army Invests $5.4M in New Polymer Making Technology from Case Western

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Researchers from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), in Ohio, teamed up with the U.S. Army Research Lab to manufacture a new lightweight and high-performance polymer that could have potential applications in protection systems and weapons, such as helmets and other impact-resistant equipment.

The new five-year agreement grants Case Western, as well as several other subcontractors, $5.4 million—with the potential for up to $11 million—to develop and produce a polymer material over the coming years. The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Command’s Army Research Laboratory (ARL) funding will go toward equipment at the university—including an electron microscope—and for hiring additional graduate students and post-doctoral scholars in the lab. The partnership also includes a subcontract to lead production scale-up of the new material with PolymerPlus, a spin-off company out of CWRU that was founded in 2010 to fill an unmet need in evaluating and maturing new microlayer and nanolayer technologies for commercial applications.

“What we’re looking to do is use our process to combine low- to mid-cost plastics—things like milk jugs and trash bags at a cost of about $3 a pound—to create a strong, flexible material equal to things like Super Kevlar, which are about $100 a pound,” said PolymerPlus President Mike Ponting, who is also a Case Western Reserve alumnus. “The Army has seen some of the initial samples and technology, but now they want to see how far we can take this.”

The novel manufacturing technology, pioneered at a small scale in the labs at CWRU essentially transforms multiple polymeric materials into sheets that can have hundreds or even thousands of individual layers, yielding new materials that are strong, lightweight, and durable.

Nanolayer film coextrusion technology for polymers. (Image courtesy of Case Western Reserve University/PolymerPlus)

According to Gary Wnek, chair of the Macromolecular Science and Engineering Department in the Case School of Engineering and lead researcher on the project, the team at CWRU will experiment with new combinations of ultra-thin plastics and send them to PolymerPlus for larger-scale processing.

“It’s a great partnership because you don’t want to invest too many resources in new material development until you can try it out first at a smaller scale,” Wnek revealed. “We know the expectations are high, that the Army wants us to do not only good research, demonstrated by publishing papers but also translational research that can be used.”

Case Western Reserve is home to the nation’s first stand-alone polymer department and the first to offer a Bachelor of Science program in polymer science accredited by ABET, a non-profit that evaluates college and university programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology. At the university’s Department of Macromolecular Science & Engineering, researchers are advancing new generations of polymers for novel electronics, batteries, bioprosthetics, drug-delivery devices, and sustainable packaging. From aerogels that can soak up oil spills to adhesives that stand up to extreme temperatures, even using nanoparticles to protect crops, undergraduate and graduate students are advancing the science and technology through the development of new materials and material systems.

Image courtesy of Case Western Reserve University

PolymerPlus, which was recently acquired in a multi-million-dollar deal by Texas-based Peak Nanosystems, will be the primary industry partner for the project. The company will use multilayer coextrusion, a polymer processing technology capable of producing high-strength fiber films with up to thousands of layers—with layer thicknesses in the micro- and nanoscale—for inclusion as laminates in impact-resistant military applications like helmets and flak jackets, designed to provide protection from high explosive weaponry.

The team will collaborate with staff at the ARL in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to design materials and advanced manufacturing approaches for high-performance composites. CWRU and PolymerPlus can continuously manufacture complex combinations of materials into unique structures that are difficult to generate even with sophisticated laboratory techniques, explained Joseph Lenhart, the ARL’s Polymers Branch Chief. Further describing that he sees tremendous opportunities for improving the performance of protective systems and weapons, with applications in the long term that are unimaginable today.

“I can’t emphasize enough how crucial it is for the Army to engage with academia across the country and with industry to rapidly push novel concepts into reality in advanced materials and manufacturing,” said Mark Tschopp, ARL Central Regional Director. “What is great about this effort is that there are ARL staff scientists stationed out here in the Midwest to improve collaboration and communication with our partners, helping to bring the subject matter expertise and unique facilities of all parties to bear on this critical application. Together, we are methodically tackling challenging problems aimed at producing outcomes of impact for the Army.”

An infographic explaining the polymer production process and various uses for the final material. (Image courtesy of Polymer Plus)

The innovative new project even had congressional support, as two members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Ohio members of Congress Marcy Kaptur and Tim Ryan, indicated that the ingenuity of the Case Western Reserve scientists is an example for future generations to understand how science can improve the US weapons and armor systems to keep service members safe. Kaptur even highlighted that Ohio has a “storied manufacturing legacy,” especially in regards to the research and development of products that support the country’s national defense.

Polymers are the basis of synthetic materials, including plastics, fibers, rubber, films, paints, membranes and adhesives, and is one of the most widely used materials in additive manufacturing. In the area of defense, designing lighter, stronger, and faster materials can lead to new protective systems, equipment, and even weapons. For example, the primary personal protective equipment used by both Army and Marine Corps personnel averages approximately 27 pounds and adds to the weight of other uniform items and equipment worn or carried. This is enough of a reason to look for ways to reduce the weight of items worn in combat. Developing specialized materials that can reduce the load burdens of military personnel as well as protect them is quickly becoming a highly sought after development.

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