US Navy, industry developing fire-resistant biotech materials


US Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, headquartered in China Lake, California, and Berkeley-based Cambium Biomaterials, Inc. are collaborating to develop and produce new, bio-based, flame-resistant materials that can both control the spread of flames and reduce the toxicity of the smoke from fire.

NAWCWD and Cambium are creating high-performance composite materials from bio-based molecules. These building blocks can be extracted from plants, synthesized from biomass sources, or produced from sugar by a fermentation process similar to that used for brewing beer.

“Researchers at NAWCWD have been working on bio-inspired high performance materials for more than a decade,” said Dr. Ben Harvey, NAWCWD’s senior research chemist and principal investigator for the project. “The new collaboration with Cambium is allowing us to transition technology out of the laboratory, from the test tube to the Warfighter, in record time.”

In this case, “record time” was a matter of weeks, with a successful in-flight demonstration of a bio-based composite material’s fire resistance completed in early April, even as COVID-19 response reduced access to the team’s laboratories.

Josh Baca, a chemical engineer and relative newcomer to the NAWCWD workforce, focused his efforts on scaling up production of two bio-based thermosetting resins. Because of precautions taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the team was not able to do all the necessary work in NAWCWD’s labs in time for the scheduled April test. Instead, Baca drew up a technology transfer document that allowed a third-party laboratory to quickly and accurately produce the materials.

According to Harvey, that’s no mean feat. Dr. Andrew Guenthner, Cambium’s chief technology officer, agreed.

“In my experience of moving projects like this forward, it is unusual that people whose focus is industrial manufacturing are able to reproduce chemical syntheses from a research and development lab in just a couple of days and come away feeling confident,” he said. “That’s a great example to show that our collaboration is producing some great results, fast.”

And it wasn’t just Baca pushing the test forward. NAWCWD Chemist David Lupton built commercial UAVs and drove them down to Mohave to facilitate flight/fire testing of the resins. Research Chemist Michael Garrison, who tested and optimized all of the resin formulations for this project, picked up one of the resins Baca had synthesized, along with other chemicals and glass fiber, and rushed them to a third-party lab in Delaware that was still open.

“Under Michael’s expert direction, the laboratory was able to fabricate the glass fiber composites and ship the materials back to Cambium in time for the test,” Harvey explained. “All of this took place over the course of a few days, in the middle of a pandemic!”

Early results from the test are promising, with the jointly produced resin performing well in a live-flight environment, but it is perhaps the speed at which the material went from the lab to field-testing and the scalability of the process that is the most telling. That sort of rapid development is key to ensuring U.S. Armed Forces and their allies maintain a decisive advantage in the field, the US Navy said.

“We need more than just incremental innovation,” said NAWCWD Commander Rear Adm. Scott Dillon. “With everything that is happening around the world today it has never been more important that we identify opportunities to innovate and then collaborate to rapidly turn promising new concepts into the fielded products that our front-line forces require.”