HANOVER, N.H. - Dr. Emily Asenath-Smith knows a lot about the science of ice, and as a research materials engineer with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), she is uniquely suited to take on a wide range of research challenges with ice.
So, when the experts with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Biological Technologies Office needed assistance understanding ice nucleation, inhibition and adhesion for their new Ice Control for cold Environments (ICE) program, they reached out to her.
“Fundamentally, my research perspective is as a materials scientist,” Asenath-Smith said. “I tackle scientific challenges by identifying the relationships between structure, properties and how materials like ice are formed. The team at DARPA is very excited about this, because they are from the biological technologies office and needed my help to figure out what they were missing — what else did they need to know — about ice.”
DARPA’s new ICE program aims to control the physical properties of ice crystals to protect military assets and personnel for enhanced operational capabilities in extreme cold environments. ICE plans to leverage biological adaptations to cold environments to develop novel biologically sourced and inspired materials to meet this goal. Innovative technologies developed via ICE will facilitate sustained operations in cold regions through the development of strategies to prevent frostbite and uncontrolled icing, for example.
At CRREL, Asenath-Smith leads a research team that focuses on the materials science of ice. In this context, they perform investigations that address basic and applied research to meet the needs of a diverse customer base. This unique interdisciplinary research program includes topics like ice composites, which they have used to bridge nanoscale structure to macroscale performance for cold regions installations.
DARPA reached out to Asenath-Smith early in the planning stage of their program.
“The DARPA team did a thorough job understanding the field of ice research and identifying icing challenges while developing the ICE program,” she said. “During this time, we spoke on numerous occasions. Ultimately, the DARPA team formalized my role in the program as their independent verification & validation (IV&V) partner.”
As a materials engineer, Asenath-Smith was able to provide a unique perspective to the biological technologies team.
“Ice is an adversary, but ice is also a resource,” she said. “At the heart of the matter, ice is a material that has unique properties that depend on its structure and how it was formed. It's really just a material, and you can approach ice research using the fundamentals of materials science. The main complicating factor is that there are no formal standards for testing the various properties of ice. This makes ice a difficult material to study, and you have to be very thorough and diligent in how you study ice and provide physics-based justifications for the approaches that you took. Otherwise, the results might not be useful in a broader context.”
“That broadness describes the heart of DARPA ICE program,” she added. “They are not just interested in reducing ice adhesion or mitigating ice or necessarily using ice as a material to drive on for roads or build with. They're also interested in the problem that cold environments cause on military operations, including things like frostbite or freezing critical fluids, or gloves and various protective equipment that fails in the cold or can't be used in the cold. The program has very broad goals.”
The DARPA ICE program contracts have not yet been awarded, and the teams have not been announced, but Asenath-Smith and her team at CRREL have been performing research in preparation for the program.
“We’re in what I call phase zero,” she said. “It is the fundamental research we have to do to get ready for a program that has such short timelines and high goals. We're developing testing and analysis frameworks for ice mitigation technologies and a testing method and analysis approach for ice inhibition materials. The DARPA ICE program has essentially three goals, to study ice adhesion, ice nucleation and ice inhibition. So, we're developing experimental approaches and analysis methods for ice adhesion, ice nucleation and ice inhibition experiments.”
With CRREL’s long history in ice research, the team has both a very deep and broad understanding of how to interrogate and perform research on ice and other materials at low temperatures.
“I’m super excited to be part of this DARPA program with my team at CRREL,” said Asenath-Smith. “We are very well versed in this field to be able to study and transition technologies for a diversity of applications. With our history, and how long we've been at this, there's not really anybody else who's studied ice from so many different angles and in so many different scenarios. At CRREL, we have both the facilities and the technical expertise to help DARPA evaluate the technologies that are developed.”
The DARPA ICE program is scheduled to kick off at CRREL in the early part of 2024.