Department of Defense funds several research ventures at UMass

By Brendan Deady

(MilitaryHealth/ Flickr)
(MilitaryHealth/ Flickr)

In a time period where an average person walks around with a personalized computer in their pocket, the belief that the future of technology is the present is justifiable. The futuristic possibilities mystified in movies and entertainment have arrived, and a number of researchers at the University of Massachusetts are helping bring the fantasies of sci-fi into reality.

A UMass professor is currently researching the effects of a sensor that can document a person’s vitals and stress levels simply by tasting the sweat on their skin. Another is testing the physical properties of a t-shirt based on its surrounding environment. And they’re doing it with the help of the federal government.

Both of these ventures, along with several others, are being funded by the United Stated Department of Defense and various agencies within the federal government via large grants.

Researchers at UMass received over $185 million in grants in 2015, with more than $100 million of that funding coming from the federal sources. For decades, funding from the Department of Defense has been the financial engine behind advancements in technology, medicine and science produced from the top universities throughout the nation. Various partnerships between researchers at UMass and funding from the DoD has continued the relationship between academia and federal agencies to produce groundbreaking technology.

Thai Thayumanavan, a chemistry professor at UMass, is the leader of a group of chemists, physicists and chemical engineers that just received a $6.25 million grant from the DoD in December. The research team will investigate chemical reactions at a molecular level unseen to the naked eye that lead to reactions on the visible and physical surface.

While Thayumanavan said the grant did not designate a specific application to direct the team’s research, he believes that progress of their study will open the doors to the creation of a “second skin” that will be worn by soldiers on the front line.

Thayumanavan said a better understanding of molecular reactions, which is the focus of his current research, could lead to practical uses. One use that he believes is in the DoD’s interest is a “smart shirt” that can detect poisonous chemicals in the air. Once a harmful agent is identified, the threads would alter their physical properties to limit a soldier’s skin exposure and become a protective “second skin.”

Thayumanavan said the DoD isn’t a controlling agency that uses the best possible minds in the country solely for its own purposes. Rather, they habitually have shared interest with ongoing research led by scientists across the country. Thayumanavan and his team were already engaged in study of molecular chemical reactions and capitalized on the DoD’s offer to support their research.

“We are asking general scientific questions and follow those answers. They’re interested in work that can be used for their purposes but the knowledge we gather applies to so many other fields. Military is just one possibility of research that has broad implications,” Thayumanavan said.

The second skin is just one potential piece of groundbreaking technology that can be traced back to minds at UMass.

Professor James Watkins, a polymer scientist, has collaborated with the defense industry on multiple projects and is one of the leading minds behind an effort to develop new sensory bands that can document a person’s stress levels by picking up biological indicators in a person’s sweat.

Watkins is the lead researcher on a $450,000 project funded by the Nano Bio Manufacturing Consortium, an organization backed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, to develop flexible sensors to monitor a soldier’s stress level on the battlefield.

Watkins described the technology as something similar to smart band-aids that can provide real time information about a soldier faced with strenuous conditions. While the grant was originally reserved for development for a specific piece of technology for the Air Force, the advancement of knowledge has opened the door for numerous applications.

The flexible electronics technology that is behind smart bands can also be applied to monitor medication levels in hospice patients, or could lead to sensors that can pick up on early signs of diseases. Once this research has been developed extensively, these bands could be used as monitors for infrastructure to indicate any potential dangers or needed repairs.

Watkins was also just acknowledged as the lead researcher for a $75 million grant from the DoD that will focus on developing manufacturing capabilities to make the technology of these smart bands cheaper and more efficient to produce.

Watkins expects the information and evolution of technology at the core of the DoD’s grant can put Massachusetts’s flexible electronics industry at the forefront of competition, an industry that is expected to have a $250 billion market in 2025. Members from the state government and the private manufacturing industry played an integral role in securing the grant because the knowledge it can lead to will have widespread reverberations.

“We’re not just talking about weapons here, there’s an infinite possibility for civilian crossover here. This grant is really about enabling new manufacturing concepts and opening new opportunities to the nation, to the economy,” Watkins said.

Behind all of these groundbreaking developments is a network of coordination that connects researchers to proper funding provided by UMass’ Research and Development.

Mike Malone, the vice chancellor of Research and Development at UMass, said his office works to connect researchers with funding that will lead to benefits beyond the grounds of UMass.
“As a public university I feel like we have an obligation to pursue initiatives that benefit our state,” Malone said.

The office of Research and Development acts as an information hub and frequently lobbies government agencies to shine light on the work taking place at UMass. In many cases, the funding allocated to researchers at UMass is a means to a greater end according to Malone.

“Many of these mission-oriented agencies have their goals behind these grants but the knowledge isn’t lost. What may be used for one purpose is transferable to many fields,” Malone said.
Or as Thayumanavan put it, research funded by the DoD and led by the minds of academia is quickly making the possibility of science fiction a reality.

Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected]