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Unveiling DARPA’s ICE Program: Harnessing Nature to Control Ice in Extreme Environments

Introduction:

The accelerating warming of the Arctic has not only opened new trade routes but has also extended the operational scope of the U.S. military into icy terrains. However, combating peer adversaries in extremely cold environments poses significant challenges, necessitating innovative solutions to enhance troop safety and operational capabilities. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has responded to this need with the Ice Control for cold Environments (ICE) program, a groundbreaking initiative aimed at revolutionizing how we navigate and operate in icy conditions.

The Challenge of Ice in Military Operations:

The warming of the arctic has opened access to new trade routes and necessitated an expanded
operational area where the U.S. military must counter peer adversaries seeking to exploit emerging theaters in ECW areas. Significant physiological and material barriers exist to establishing and maintaining a force capable of sustained operations in ice-prone environments.

Fighting in bitter cold, ice-dominated environments presents inherent risks and difficulties for military operations. DARPA recognizes these challenges and is actively soliciting proposals for technologies that can manipulate ice at the molecular level. The objective is to develop solutions that reduce the risks for troops engaged in operations in extremely cold environments.

Understanding the Biological Blueprint:

Many challenges arise from the unique physical properties of ice, including crystal formation, recrystallization, and propagation. To address these challenges, DARPA’s ICE program draws inspiration from nature, particularly from organisms that have evolved to thrive in icy environments. These organisms exhibit biological adaptations that mitigate or exploit the physical properties of ice, providing valuable insights for developing technologies that can operate effectively in extreme cold.

The ICE Program’s Objectives:

The ICE program, launched in September 2022, spans a four-year timeline and is divided into three phases. The overarching goal is to discover and optimize biologically sourced or inspired molecules that can influence ice crystal growth, formation, and adhesion. DARPA aims to leverage these molecules to develop technologies capable of addressing the operational challenges faced by the Department of Defense in extreme cold environments.

Ice control capabilities could include, but are not limited to, the prevention of frostbite injuries, reduction of ice accretion on vehicles, vessels, and aircraft, decreased damage to infrastructure, maintaining aqueous solutions (potable water, medicines), solving transportation and logistics challenges (ice bridges, roads, runways), and enabling field operations.

Leveraging Nature’s Solutions:

Collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, researchers under the ICE program will explore various biological solutions. This includes leveraging ice-binding proteins, pigments with selective melting properties, cryoprotective polysaccharides, and small molecule cryoprotectants sourced from organisms like fish, insects, bacteria, algae, and plants.

“Insects, fish, plants and freeze-tolerant organisms have evolved natural mechanisms to prevent ice formation and thrive in extreme cold,” said Anne Cheever, ICE program manager. “These properties could be leveraged as part of the ICE program to develop persistent anti-icing coatings for surfaces and even produce specialized small molecules that work synergistically with biodegradable antifreeze proteins,” Cheever added

Challenges and Focus Areas:

The program acknowledges the need for standardized testing methodologies to quantify the performance of ice control molecules. It identifies challenges such as the discovery of new molecules, optimization of their functions, and the improvement of their dynamic functional range for diverse Department of Defense (DoD) applications. The ability to modulate specific properties of ice, such as size, shape, and freezing/melting points, is crucial for a range of DoD applications.

Technical Areas:

  1. Bio-inspired and Bio-sourced Molecules:

    • Identifying and characterizing naturally occurring proteins, peptides, and other molecules with ice-control properties.
    • Understanding the mechanisms by which these molecules interact with ice crystals and influence their formation, growth, and adhesion.
    • Designing synthetic mimics or derivatives of these natural molecules for enhanced ice-control capabilities.
  2. Formulation and Material Development:

    • Engineering materials that incorporate the optimized ice-control molecules, such as coatings, sprays, or functionalized surfaces.
    • Tailoring the properties of these materials (e.g., durability, adhesion, environmental stability) for specific military applications.
    • Developing fabrication and application methods suitable for real-world deployment.
  3. Ice Monitoring and Sensing:

    • Integrating sensors and detection systems to monitor environmental ice conditions and assess the effectiveness of the developed ice-control materials.
    • Establishing predictive models for ice formation and accumulation to proactively address potential challenges.
  4. Environmental and Safety Considerations:

    • Analyzing the potential environmental impacts of the ice-control molecules and materials.
    • Ensuring the safety of soldiers and the environment through rigorous testing and risk assessment.

Closing Capability Gaps:

While some ice-modulating molecules have been previously characterized, the ICE program emphasizes the necessity for foundational research and development efforts. Systematic screening for activity, standardization of performance screening, and optimization of molecules for performance are critical steps in addressing capability gaps and harnessing the full potential of biologically inspired ice control.

Program Phases:

Phase 1: Discovery and Optimization (2022-2024): Focus on identifying and optimizing ice-control molecules.

The ICE program’s first phase focuses on in-depth research and analysis to comprehend the complexities of ice-covered environments. From Arctic landscapes to frozen water bodies, DARPA aims to gather crucial data to develop effective strategies for ice control. This phase involves collaboration with scientists, environmental experts, and technology pioneers to create a comprehensive understanding of the unique challenges presented by icy conditions.

Phase 2: Developing Innovative Ice Control Technologies (2024-2026)

Building on the insights gained from the initial phase, DARPA shifts its focus to the development of cutting-edge technologies tailored for ice control. This includes the creation of advanced materials, machinery, and systems capable of mitigating the challenges posed by ice accumulation on various surfaces. From military vehicles to infrastructure in cold regions, the goal is to enhance mobility, safety, and operational efficiency.

Subtopics:

  1. Smart Ice Detection Systems: Introducing sensor-based technologies that can detect ice formation in real-time, enabling proactive ice control measures.
  2. Eco-Friendly De-icing Solutions: Exploring environmentally sustainable methods for de-icing surfaces without harmful environmental impacts.
  3. Adaptive Traction Systems: Developing intelligent traction systems for vehicles and equipment to navigate icy terrains with enhanced stability.
  4. Ice-Resistant Materials: Innovating materials designed to repel or resist ice formation, reducing the need for frequent de-icing efforts.

Phase 3: Field Testing and Implementation(2026-2028)

The final phase involves rigorous field testing of the developed technologies in real-world cold environments. DARPA will collaborate with military units, research institutions, and relevant agencies to assess the practicality, effectiveness, and durability of the ice control solutions. This phase serves as a crucial step in refining the technologies before their potential integration into military operations and civilian applications.

Proposers may seek to leverage a series of technological advances across disparate fields that have
produced a confluence of biotechnology capabilities enabling the identification, engineering,
optimization, and scaling of new biologically sourced or inspired molecules displaying ice control
properties, including:
 ice-binding proteins (fish, insects, fungi, bacteria, and plants), capable of modulating the
physical and kinetic properties of ice formation in a dynamic fashion at the molecular level;
 pigments capable of absorption of defined wavelengths of light and radiative heat transfer
to selectively melt snow versus ice (algae and bacteria);
 cryoprotective polysaccharides (bacteria, algae, insects, and plants); and
 small molecule cryoprotectants and eutectic mixtures (animals, insects, and plants).

 

Although only a limited number of these compounds have been identified and experimentally
validated to date, these molecules hail from a diverse set of organisms and have demonstrated
unique functionalities by divergent mechanisms such as instigating ice formation at elevated
temperatures, decreasing ice formation at lower temperatures (with no effect on the melting point), selectively adhering to ice at ice/water interfaces, enabling cryoprotection and anti-desiccation activities.

ICE performers will characterize candidates based on their method of ice control, broadly grouped under inhibition, induction, and adhesion, regardless of the type of molecule (e.g., proteins, small molecules, polysaccharides). Some of the challenges to be addressed for each class of ice control molecule include, but are not limited to:
1) Discovering and characterizing new ice control molecules.
2) Measuring key physical properties of ice crystal formation and maturation and corresponding modulation by exogenous agents in standardized, quantitative, high throughput, and reproducible assays.
3) Optimizing function of ice control molecules at varied temperature ranges, improving stability, and enabling identification, isolation, validation, and optimization of novel molecules.
4) Improving the dynamic functional range of molecules to expand suitability for diverse DoD
applications.

 

The field lacks standardized, quantitative, and reproducible assays to measure key physical
properties of ice crystal formation and maturation, as well as their corresponding modulation by
exogenous agents. Current approaches are time consuming, require expert execution for reliable
results, can be dependent on qualitative observation/scoring, are low throughput, and can be prone to either false positive or negative results depending on method and protocol.

 

Standardized testing methodologies capable of robust, reproducible quantification of molecule
performance related to ice induction, adhesion and inhibition classes respectively, would be
advantageous to identifying and developing novel materials capable of inhibiting or accelerating
ice crystal formation/propagation or binding to ice for DoD ECW applications.

 

The ability to modulate specific properties of ice such as the type, size, shape, texture, freezing
point, melting point, kinetics, strength, and thickness would be advantageous for a wide variety of
DoD applications. Studies by a diverse cadre of investigators focused on elucidating the biochemical, and physiological adaptations that microbes, plants, and animals display to survive
extreme cold have identified a number of biological molecules (proteins, polysaccharides, and
small molecules) that exhibit the ability to modulate or exploit the properties of ice.

These activities include antifreeze, ice nucleation, ice recrystallization inhibition, ice structuring, and ice adhesion. While some ice-modulating molecules and their associated properties have been previously characterized and reported in literature, significant foundational research and development efforts are required to screen for activity in a robust, standardized, reproducible manner and to optimize molecules for performance. To systematically address these capability gaps, ICE program performers must sequentially develop solutions to expand discovery and standardize performance screening of molecules capable of inhibiting ice crystallization/re-crystallization, nucleation, and molecular adhesion to ice.

Awards and Recent Developmets

DARPA has awarded grants to several research teams for Phase 1 of the ICE program, including:

  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Northwestern University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Colorado State University

Dr. Emily Asenath-Smith, a research materials engineer at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), is playing a pivotal role in supporting the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Biological Technologies Office for its Ice Control for cold Environments (ICE) program. Her expertise enables DARPA to navigate the complexities of ice research, addressing challenges such as ice adhesion, nucleation, and inhibition. Currently in the preparatory phase, Asenath-Smith and her team at CRREL are conducting fundamental research, developing testing and analysis frameworks for ice mitigation technologies.

  • Recent research publications by Phase 1 teams highlight promising discoveries of novel ice-control molecules derived from bacteria, icefish, and antifreeze proteins.
  • Collaboration with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory has begun for future field testing and evaluation of developed materials.
  • DARPA is exploring potential partnerships with private companies for commercialization of ICE technologies beyond military applications.

Significance and Potential Applications:

  1. Military Operations in Arctic Regions: Enhanced mobility and reduced risks for military vehicles and personnel operating in icy environments.
  2. Civilian Infrastructure: Improved safety and functionality of critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and airports, in regions prone to freezing conditions.
  3. Disaster Response: Faster and more efficient response to natural disasters occurring in cold climates, such as ice storms and extreme winter weather.

Conclusion:

The DARPA ICE program underscores the agency’s commitment to addressing challenges in extreme environments. DARPA’s ICE program represents a forward-thinking approach to addressing the challenges presented by icy environments.

By delving into nature’s ingenious solutions, the program aims to unlock new possibilities for military operations in extreme cold while simultaneously contributing valuable knowledge to the broader scientific community. By fostering collaboration between researchers, engineers, and experts, DARPA aims to propel innovation in ice control technologies, with far-reaching implications for both military and civilian applications.

The hope is to not only mitigate risks for troops but also to pave the way for innovative solutions applicable to a wide range of cold-environment scenarios.  As the program progresses through its phases, the world eagerly anticipates the development of groundbreaking solutions that will redefine our ability to navigate and operate in cold environments.

 

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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