Degradable plastics could revolutionize military operations, supply chains

Degradable plastics could revolutionize military operations, supply chains

Imagine a small plane or a drone that virtually disappears after completing its mission, leaving behind no evidence of its activities and no chance for the equipment to fall into enemy hands. Or, envision stealthy sensors that collect and transmit environmental or medical data and then dissolve without a trace.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded research at the Georgia Institute of Technology that has moved closer to making such vanishing sorties a reality.

The team of engineers has produced a new plastic material that can be molded into pliable sheets and sturdy mechanical parts and then triggered to vaporize within minutes to hours after being exposed to ultraviolet light or temperatures over 80 degrees Celsius, Scientific American magazine reported.

DARPA has already successfully tested the new class of plastics in parachutes and gliders. “They are great for applications where you want things to disappear right away,” Dr. Paul Kohl, a Georgia Tech professor and engineering team member, told Scientific American at an August 2019 conference in San Diego, California.

Although many teams of researchers have been working on degradable plastics for some time for recycling and other purposes, the resulting self-destructing materials often broke down at room temperature. The new material, however, can be stable for up to 20 years, provided it is protected from the sun, Kohl explained at the annual American Chemical Society conference. The team developed a way to essentially trigger the degradation on command.

DARPA began funding its program to develop such vanishing materials for air-delivery vehicles, known as Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Uncoverable Systems (ICARUS), which supported the Georgia Tech research. (In Greek mythology, Icarus’ wings, which were made with wax, melted when he ventured too close to the sun.) DARPA said the program aimed “to mimic the material transience that led to Icarus’ demise but leverages that capacity in scenarios with more uplifting endings,” reported.

Re-Forming Military Waste

DARPA is also investing in other work to revolutionize recycling of materials in the battlespace. DARPA’s new ReSource program strives to enhance the U.S. military’s legendary supply chain management capabilities by converting military waste generated during deployment into critical stocks, such as chemical lubricants for weapons and machinery or even into food and water. The portable, self-contained systems will recycle energy-dense waste on-site and on demand to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations as well as expeditionary operations conducted by Special Operations Forces troops.

“In a remote or austere environment where even the basics for survival can’t be taken for granted, there can be no such thing as ‘single use,’” said DARPA program manager Blake Bextine.

DARPA anticipates the systems will blend mechanical, biological and chemical catalytic approaches and likely be fueled in part by a combination of biomolecules and microbes. For example, Soldiers could feed discarded wrappers from their prepackaged meals into these systems and select what recycled product the material should be converted or re-formed into, depending on the Soldiers’ immediate needs.

“We hope to give troops the ability to extend their time in field, expand their operational flexibility or stabilize at-risk populations by taking advantage of almost any resource on hand,” Bextine said. “Even in otherwise barren locations, we could make it possible to forage for waste that can be broken down and converted into emergency rations or other critical supplies.”

The ReSource program would shift waste management from burning, burying and shipping practices to on-site conversion of used materials to a strategic resource, a capability that would also interest the environmental sustainability community.  FORUM Staff