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Safeguarding National Security: U.S. DOD Develops Advanced Materials for Extreme Environments


In a world where military technologies are constantly evolving, the United States Department of Defense (DOD) is at the forefront of innovation, pushing the boundaries of materials science to enhance national security. The development of advanced materials capable of withstanding extreme environments is a strategic imperative for the U.S. military. This article explores the latest breakthroughs in materials research, particularly the collaboration between Texas A&M University, the Army Research Laboratory, and teams from UC San Diego and Georgia Tech, aimed at revolutionizing materials discovery for defense applications.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review:

The U.S. DOD’s commitment to addressing the evolving threat is evident in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). This comprehensive review acknowledges the marked deterioration in global threat conditions since the previous NPR in 2010. The current scenario encompasses major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats, alongside the challenges posed by violent non-state actors. Russia and China, in particular, are contesting international norms, necessitating a renewed dedication to deterring threats and assuring allies.

North Korea’s Advancements:

Some regions are marked by persistent disorder that appears likely to continue and possibly intensify. These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk, demanding a renewed seriousness of purpose in deterring threats and assuring allies and partners.”

A concrete example of the evolving threat is North Korea’s successful development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead anywhere in the United States. Kim Jong Un’s declaration of achieving a “state nuclear force” after the launch of the Hwasong-15 missile in 2017 marked a significant milestone.

In an analysis for the Washington-based 38 North think tank, missile expert Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the North Korean photos showed a missile considerably larger than its predecessor. “Initial calculations indicate the new missile could deliver a moderately sized nuclear weapon to any city on the US mainland,” Elleman said.  Elleman said the missile was large and powerful enough to carry simple decoys or other countermeasures to challenge US missile defences.

Adapting to a Changing Landscape:

As Whelan underscored in her testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, the WMD threat landscape is in constant flux. Of particular concern is the rapid advancement in biotechnology, which not only increases the potential for WMD capabilities but also introduces new challenges in terms of variety and ease of access to biological weapons. This dynamic environment demands a proactive and innovative approach to stay ahead of emerging threats.

Of particular concern is the rapid advancement in biotechnology, which not only increases the potential for WMD capabilities but also introduces new challenges in terms of variety and ease of access to biological weapons. This dynamic environment demands a proactive and innovative approach to stay ahead of emerging threats.

EMP Threat and Materials Innovation:

The deployment of nuclear weapons carries the risk of generating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), causing widespread destruction of electronics. Recognizing this, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has initiated the Materials Science in Extreme Environments University Research Alliance (MSEE URA).

These Nuclear weapons will cause  extreme high strength  electromagnetic pulse commonly abbreviated as EMP,  caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles, which could cause  widespread destruction of electronics. The research will develop multifunctional shielding materials that incorporate electromagnetic pulse (EMP) shielding. The project collateral effect of such high altitude nuclear detonation, will be loss of  hundreds of  vital military  LEO satellites. Such a HAND event shall result in intense radiation in VAN ALLEN BELTS, elimination of low radiation slot in between them or creation of new artificial radiation belts. The contract, which could extend to nine years, also includes an effort to devise materials capable of protecting communication satellites from being rendered inoperable by a nuclear explosion in space. This alliance, spanning 18 institutions, aims to develop materials capable of withstanding extreme conditions caused by WMDs, including EMP events.

MSEE-URA: Advancing Science for National Security:

A wide range of WMD-relevant environments are of interest including: conventional fireballs, nuclear fireballs, photon-induced blow-off, plasmas, and warm dense matter. These environments are challenging not only due to the temperatures, pressures, and energies involved, but also the rapid evolution of the environments and the need to model across multiple time, energy, and physical time scales. Limited experimental testing opportunities and diagnostics adds to the challenge of understanding material responses in these extreme environments. A comprehensive integrated and collaborative approach is required to make progress on these challenges.

The focus of the MSEE-URA will be to advance the fundamental understanding of various material properties and mechanisms in non-equilibrium high pressure, high temperature, and high photon number regimes.DTRA seeks to develop an increased understanding of effects of WMD and C-WMD events on materials and the effects of those materials on the events. This includes both the testing, characterizing, and modeling of material as well as control and manipulation of materials to achieve the desired results. An enhanced understanding of fundamental properties may lead to significant advances for the warfighter.

To address this problem, the MSEE-URA seeks proposals focusing on understanding, controlling, characterizing, and predicting interactions of materials in extreme pressure, temperature, and optical environments.

The MSEE-URA, led by Johns Hopkins University, is a collaborative effort involving technical experts from various universities. This alliance focuses on four key research areas:

The four research areas for the MSEE-URA are as follows and include possible desired research outcomes within those four research areas.

• Material Properties and Failure – (a) Produce materials constitutive models and failure models applicable at fast rates (102 – 106 s-1) for hard rock and cementitious materials,; (b) Experimentally identify material properties contributing to sensitivity of energetics and composite materials (including reactives and additively manufactured materials); (c) Identify material property/numerical sources of uncertainty and sensitivities for nuclear models.

• Materials Development and Manufacturing for Synergistic Effects – (a) Develop structure-function-property relationships of additively manufactured reactive materials, additive manufacturing of multifunctional nanocomposites, ignition/combustion, dynamic imaging of post combustion fields; (b) Fabricate multifunctional shielding materials that incorporate electromagnetic pulse (EMP) shielding while maintaining other requirements such as weight, cost, ballistic protection, ionizing radiation protection; (c) Identify combinations of energetics/non-energetic materials that produce synergistic effects and/or identify material properties that may lend well to tailored performance.

• Chemistry in Extreme Environments – (a) Construct validation models that predict nuclear fireball behavior in complex urban environments and identify fundamental experimental measurements that could improve models. (b) Develop high temperature/high heating rate chemical mechanisms and associated Arrhenius kinetic models for low vapor pressure organophosphorous species.

• Photon-Material Interactions – (a) Improve understanding and predictive models of X-ray energy deposition, material blow-off, and plasma generation and evolution for ensuring the survivability of space solar arrays and strategic systems; (b) Improve models, materials, and approaches for utilizing direct laser impulse testing to simulate blow-off impulse of strategic systems.

The group will use and enhance “innovative experimental facilities and diagnostics that permit critical, as-yet-unachievable observations of materials under extreme conditions” common when countering weapons of mass destruction. Such facilities include the Johns Hopkins University’s Hypervelocity Facility for Impact Research Experiments (HyFIRE) with x-ray, laser, hyperspectral, and video diagnostics; the University of Rochester’s Omega Laser Facility with x-ray and particle diagnostics tools; and the University of Illinois’ blast chamber with high-resolution infrared transmission spectroscopy.

X-ray Induced Blow-off and Plasma

The majority of the energy in an exo-atmospheric nuclear explosion is released as an X-ray pulse. X-ray induced thermo-mechanical shock (TMS) from exo-atmospheric nuclear explosions can be a threat to DoD systems.


Due to the short penetration depth of X-rays in most materials, this X-ray pulse can cause the surface layers of a material to rapidly ablate, blow-off, and form a plasma. In addition to material surface damage and damage to exposed optics and sensors, this pulse can impart a shock wave on systems and potentially generate conductive plasmas on the surfaces of sensors or solar arrays. System level testing for X-ray effects is limited by source availability, vacuum requirements, and additionally complicated by fast moving debris. Research in this area is expected to be predominately modeling and simulation informed by experiments, as available and appropriate.


Testing for TMS using X-rays is complicated by source availability, vacuum requirements, debris, and uniformity limits. Testing using explosives or magnet flyer plates is complicated by complex system shapes and limited availability. Pulsed laser based techniques have the potential to simulate X-ray blow-off and TMS.

The MSEE-URA is seeking basic research on the fundamental interactions of x-rays with matter including: transport, penetration, blow-off, ionization and shock wave generation. Of particular interest is the time evolution and time dependence of X-ray interactions with matter. For example, the initial blow-off and plasma formation will change the opacities and energy absorption properties for the rest of the pulse duration. Time evolution is also critical to understanding and modeling shock generation, intensity, and timing/waveform.


RA2—FA3: Characterize and Predict Physical/Chemical Effects in Turbulent Environments

Novel energetic materials with thermal and chemical/catalytic neutralization mechanisms are being investigated for future defeat/denial scenarios. Reducing collateral effects, using these novel materials, requires accurate simulation of the relevant species and reactions followed by turbulent mixing and plume evolution. Recent advances by researchers have developed simulation models to describe some of the mechanistic phenomena. However, there is still a lack of understanding across the field as to how detonation/combustion products and key species interact in turbulent conditions with elevated temperature, pressure, and numerous species. Further, predicting where and when the fireball or detonation products are hot (thermal profile) enough to neutralize agents, requires modeling the shock and detonation-induced instabilities that lead to turbulent mixing. However, it is difficult to accurately characterize the highly-heterogeneous and dynamic post-blast environment due to the lack of reliable experimental data, and computational and simulation models.


WMD are encountered in environments/areas with various geometrical shapes and level of accessibility such as inside bunkers, open air, large processing buildings with multiple or single rooms. The performance of C-WMD materials in these would varying accordingly, hence, the MSEE-URA seeks to understand the turbulent mixing of aerosolized biological and chemical simulants in atmospheres with high temperature, reactive gases, and catalytic particles. Research in computational fluid dynamics is needed to develop a novel approach to describe the mixing phenomena, and ultimately neutralization, of aerosolized biological and chemical simulants. Investigation on functions that describe turbulence and experiments on small scale mixing are needed in time scales of 10-5000 ms. For future decision making purposes, the MSEE-URA seeks models describing turbulence and mixing dynamics in an extreme environment and includes quantification of measurement and model uncertainties.


RA2—FA1: Multimodal Shielding

Nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) including aircrafts, ground vehicles, ships and transportable mission critical systems must be hardened against high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP). HEMP is generated by a high altitude nuclear detonation primarily by gamma ray’s Compton interaction with air molecules. HEMP travels at the speed of light and is picked up by electrical conductors and antennas by the electromagnetic coupling.


There are several phases of HEMP which are distinguished by the time of arrival. Firstly, the early time component (E1) of HEMP has a short duration of 1 μs, with a high rise time of a few nanoseconds, and can reach the intensity of several tens of kV/m. This is the most critical portion of the HEMP waveform, with a high frequency of over several hundreds of megahertz dominated by the prompt gamma rays. Secondly, the intermediate time component (E2) of HEMP has an intermediate duration of 1 μs to 1 s from the effect of secondary gamma rays. Finally, the late time component (E3) of HEMP has a long duration of 1 s, to several hundreds of seconds, with a decaying waveform emanating from the interaction of Compton electrons with the Earth’s magnetic field, which has similarities with a geomagnetic storm. The high frequency and amplitude of HEMP induce high current and voltage that can cause severe damage to electronic systems.


To protect against HEMP, Faraday cage principles are applied to form a continuous shielding enclosure that provides good electrical and magnetic conductive planes. Metal wires with good ferromagnetic properties are usually chosen to design a Faraday cage. However, these wires can be embedded in other materials to develop a composite material such as conductive concrete. Nanometals and nanofoams with better electrical and magnetic properties that are embedded in the composite matrix to create metal enclosure, could also be considered for HEMP shielding. Another potential option is the use of conductive polymer composites for HEMP shielding. In addition to HEMP protection, the goal of a shielding material is to provide protection against shock and penetration from conventional weapons.
The MSEE-URA seeks basic research in innovative multimodal shielding materials that provide protection from EMP, in addition to blast, shock, and penetration. Nanoscale composites and networks, as well as higher order structures, are also potentially of interest. However, simply adding conductive material to known shielding materials is not generally of interest.


The MSEE-URA also seeks basic research on innovative approaches for the fabrication and manufacture of multimodal shielding. Additive manufacturing could be a viable method of fabricating reinforced composite shielding materials. Methods to align and integrate a carbon nanotube network or other novel materials would also be of potential interest. The MSEE-URA further seeks basic research in novel EMP shielding concepts. This could include directional EMP shielding that is, or can be made, transparent to desired electromagnetic signals without losing its functionality against EMP.


RA2—FA2: Tailoring Chemistry via Materials

Chemical and Biological agents used as WMD are delivered as part of weapon payload systems. These agents exist in the form of solids (particulates), gases, liquids, mist (liquid droplets), etc., and are typically located in hostile or non-permissive areas in a wide variety of containers and facilities. Materials that will mitigate the above concern by utilizing multiple and synergistic mechanisms, which lend themselves to performance control by tailoring energy/species output is preferred. Materials which produce combustion products with late time effects, along with pyrophoric characteristics, are of interest (e.g., firebranding).

Prior efforts have focused on materials development for neutralizing biological agents in an ideal (standard pressure and temperature) environment. Efforts geared towards chemical agent pyrolysis and combustion have been limited and focused mainly on thermally driven decomposition pathways of several simulants with physical properties similar to a real agent. Within this FA, the MSEE-URA seeks basic research for identifying energetic and non-energetic material combinations capable of simultaneously neutralizing both biological and chemical agents in extreme environments and which utilize scalable manufacturing processes. As an example, employing additive processes techniques to explore the effect of geometry and composition on chemistry, kinetics, and control energy/species release is of great interest. The MSEE-URA seeks research into the development of novel materials with synergistic effects producing simultaneous neutralization of chemical and biological weapon agents along with their precursors by multi-mechanistic means and understanding of the decomposition chemistry in extreme environments. These environments include significant variations in pressure, temperature, moisture content, and key species concentrations (oxygen rich vs. oxygen deficient). Producing information on decomposition products, to populate thermochemical/kinetic models, is also of interest.

The Urgency of Research:

The MSEE-URA is intended to create a collaborative environment that enables an Alliance to advance the state of the art and assist with the transition of research to enhance and predict with confidence the performance of materials of interest to DTRA. DTRA believes that the establishment of the MSEE-URA in conjunction with robust internal mission programs, provides the optimum path to success. Such cooperative efforts enable researchers from across the nation to collaborate more effectively, to deliver results faster, and “to train, mentor, and inspire a new generation of students, many of whom will go on to work at federal laboratories and agencies,” Weihs said.

The MSEE-URA, supported by nearly $30 million in funding over five years, underscores the urgency of advancing materials science to counter WMD threats. This initiative aligns with DTRA’s mission to reduce, eliminate, and counter the threat and effects of WMD. By fostering collaboration between academia and defense experts, the U.S. DOD aims to accelerate breakthroughs that will enhance national security.

Fundamental studies of materials in harsh, WMD relevant environments including physical properties of several material classes, materials engineering, and high temperature (plasma) chemistry, are vital to understanding material-WMD interactions in relevant environments. A successful program will demonstrate a comprehensive capability to address materials and their associated physical and engineering properties, as well as chemical mechanisms within relevant and harsh regimes.

Unveiling the BIRDSHOT Center:

A team of researchers from Texas A&M University, the University of California, San Diego, and the Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a new method for discovering high-entropy alloys (HEAs) that is faster, more accurate, and more cost-effective than traditional methods.

At the heart of this groundbreaking research is the High-Throughput Materials Discovery for Extreme Environments Center (HTMDEC), affectionately known as the Batch-wise Improvement in Reduced Materials Design Space using a Holistic Optimization Technique (BIRDSHOT) Center.

The new method, called the Batch-wise Improvement in Reduced Materials Design Space using a Holistic Optimization Technique (BIRDSHOT) Center, uses a combination of physics-based simulations, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to identify HEAs that meet specific performance requirements.

The BIRDSHOT team was able to use their method to find a new HEA for the U.S. Army in less than a year. If traditional methods had been used, it would have taken centuries to find the same alloy.

The BIRDSHOT Center, which will be located at Texas A&M University, will continue to develop new methods for accelerating the discovery of HEAs and other advanced materials.

Accelerating Defense Innovation:

The contemporary military landscape demands unprecedented levels of innovation and adaptability.

Instead of the traditional decades-long process, the team cut down the experimentation phase by accurately predicting high-performance alloy compositions, demonstrating a remarkable reduction from approximately 50,000 experiments to merely 80. This breakthrough method discovered a new high-entropy alloy for the Army in less than a year, a process that would have taken centuries using conventional methods.

Dr. Raymundo Arróyave, the principal investigator and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Texas A&M, emphasizes the need for accelerated innovation. Traditional timelines for developing alloys and materials are being challenged by the rapid evolution of threats and technologies. The BIRDSHOT Center is a response to this demand for agility and efficiency in materials discovery.

The BIRDSHOT Approach:

The BIRDSHOT research team adopted a multifaceted approach to overcome the challenges posed by conventional materials discovery methods. Leveraging machine learning, physics-based simulations, and artificial intelligence, the researchers created a framework capable of predicting high-performance alloy compositions. This transformative approach significantly reduces the time and cost associated with materials development, enabling the discovery of alloys with enhanced strength, durability, and resistance to extreme conditions.

Collaborative Excellence:

A key highlight of this endeavor is the extensive collaboration between Texas A&M University, the Army Research Laboratory, UC San Diego, and Georgia Tech. The BIRDSHOT project brought together two dozen students, faculty from three universities, and 10 research groups. This collaborative synergy demonstrates the power of collective efforts in advancing materials science and engineering.

Implications for Defense Technology:

Transforming Defense Capabilities

The development of these advanced materials holds immense potential for transforming defense capabilities, including:

  • Improved personal protective equipment (PPE): Developing more effective suits, masks, and gloves to protect personnel from WMD and HAND threats.

  • Enhanced decontamination systems: Creating materials that can efficiently decontaminate equipment and infrastructure exposed to hazardous substances.

  • Advanced sensors and detectors: Developing materials that can detect and identify WMD and HAND threats with greater sensitivity and accuracy.

  • Resilient infrastructure: Fortifying critical infrastructure, such as military bases and transportation systems, against the effects of WMD and HAND attacks.

The successful implementation of the BIRDSHOT framework has far-reaching implications for defense technology. The ability to accurately predict high-performance alloys in a significantly shorter timeframe ensures that the U.S. military can stay ahead of emerging threats. The BIRDSHOT Center aims to develop automated systems for rapid materials discovery, paving the way for enhanced defense technologies.

Educating the Next Generation:

Beyond its immediate objectives, the MSEE-URA offers a unique opportunity to train and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. With a focus on STEM disciplines, this initiative contributes to the growth of a skilled workforce capable of addressing complex national security challenges.

Beyond its immediate impact, the BIRDSHOT Center provides a unique educational opportunity for students. Engaging in cutting-edge research, students at Texas A&M are contributing to the transformation of materials discovery processes. This collaborative effort not only advances scientific knowledge but also prepares the next generation of researchers and innovators.


In the face of an ever-evolving WMD threat landscape, the U.S. DOD’s proactive stance in developing advanced materials is crucial. The MSEE-URA, with its collaborative and multidisciplinary approach, exemplifies a strategic investment in science and technology to safeguard national security. As the alliance progresses in its mission, the nation moves closer to a future where innovative materials stand as a robust defense against the unpredictable and dynamic challenges posed by weapons of mass destruction.

The collaborative efforts between Texas A&M University, the Army Research Laboratory, and partner institutions represent a paradigm shift in materials discovery for defense applications. As the BIRDSHOT Center continues its mission, the U.S. Department of Defense is poised to benefit from a new era of materials innovation. Safeguarding national security requires staying at the forefront of technological advancements, and the BIRDSHOT initiative exemplifies the commitment to excellence in defense research and development.




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