For a long time, I’ve kept a well-measured distance from all programs involving space and the military. Probably because I am horrible at remembering acronyms. For me, AOL is where I log on to get my e-mail, but at Goddard it stands for Airborne Oceanographic LIDAR, while to military brass it signals an aircraft operating limitation.
Still, I have long marveled at the impact that government programs have had in spinning off technological innovation to improve my everyday life. The space race has given us conveniences from Nomex to the smoke detector, from Tang to the cordless drill. The military has blessed us with everything from the microwave oven to the jet engine and those ridiculous Hummers. My life changed forever the first time I logged onto ARPANET, the Defense Department project that evolved into today’s ubiquitous Internet.
Our own paint industry has benefited from coatings developed for space and military applications. NASA developed launch pad coatings that are now used to protect the Statue of Liberty. Space-age hardcoats for optics developed at NASA Lewis Research Center in my hometown of Cleveland have been licensed to Ray Ban to protect my sunglasses.
But until recently, it seemed like military coatings have been a tad removed from my everyday existence. Aside from camouflaged ATVs and hunting gear, the average American doesn’t have much need for (or access to) military coating technology. While the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground routinely assesses Chemical Agent Resistant Coatings (CARCs), most folks just don’t need a paint that withstands the rigors of these exotic materials. And while laser-invisible stealth coatings might be handy for a hot-footed teenage speedster, he is not likely to get his hands on that technology any time soon.
Recently, however, I discovered that my world and the military world have in common my favorite acronym: UV
Fast and GreenTake, for example, an award made by the Department of Defense through their Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP, of course) to fund research into the potential of ultraviolet (UV) powder as an alternative coating system for repairing military aircraft.
“There are several forces at work,” explains Christopher Geib, a program manager at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a large contractor providing expertise to the military, intelligence community and homeland security.
“The military is going green,” says Geib. (Not the fatigue kind, the environmental kind.) And, at the same time, there is a pressing need to speed up the paint process - the “dry-to-fly” time, as the Air Force calls it.
Geib began working with low-temperature powder a few years ago under a Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP to you and me). But Geib feels that UV is “a natural progression” of coatings development because of its rapid cure and low temperature.
The following excerpt from a current technical order points out a problem that watching paint dry has on our military readiness:
5.6.3 Curing of Finishes. After painting, allow aircraft finish system to cure in a dust-free temperature controlled atmosphere for a sufficient time prior to placing in service. In the absence of accelerated curing, the aircraft shall not be flown for at least 72 hours after painting. In general, all painted aircraft should be handled, taxied, etc., as little as possible during the first week after painting.
“UV coatings could allow aircraft to be cured in minutes rather than hours and days,” says Corey Bliss of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH.
Reduced cure time added to the environmental compliance of UV materials made UV coating attractive enough to Bliss and his colleagues that he spearheaded the proposal to evaluate UV powder. “A typical conventional USAF coating today contains from 340 to 420 grams/liter of VOCs,” explains Bliss. UV powder coatings are VOC-free.
Reinvigorating ResearchThe UV powder program is just one of a number of current military initiatives to integrate UV coating technology into the U.S. arsenal. In January, Concurrent Technologies Corp., another major military contractor providing coating expertise, held its 3rd Advanced Aerospace Coating/Decoating Technical Symposium. At times, the event resembled a RadTech International conference with UV dominating presentations on topics ranging from color-code marking of bullets to painting helicopters. It was clear from the program that there has been remarkable progress in formulating coatings to meet the demanding rigors of stringent MIL specifications.
While the military began with hopes that Conventional Off-The-Shelf (yes, COTS) technology would meet its needs, the shortcomings of conventional products led to R&D projects that have advanced the technology to the edge of current UV capabilities, including coatings that can now withstand abuse from the most caustic solvents such as Skydrol™. It’s only been through the deliberate and generous outlay of funding through the daunting maze of ESTCP, SERDP, SBIR and STTR that such progress has been possible.
This help from Uncle Sam could not have come at a better time, since paint industry R&D spending (particularly in the UV arena) has been woefully lacking for years.
UV powder, which seemed to rocket skywards in the late 1990s, turned into a dud in the wake of the 2000-2001 economic downturn, never to fully recover. An early success, the technology soon stalled from a lack of support and funding by the companies that supported it at the outset. Now the Air Force support might give UV powder new wings - a phoenix rising again from the ashes of corporate R&D.
Hallway conversations at depots and bases turn to the flexible arrays of UV LEDs, robotic curing, and super-durable UV waterborne formulations using nanocoating technology.
A Valuable GiftWhile having the government step in to help move UV technology forward is enormously satisfying for those of us prone to frustration, there is a decided downside to the corporations watching idly from the sidelines. In her presentation “Intellectual Property: Rights and Responsibilities of Government Employee Inventors,” Mona Arvidson of the Johnson Space Center’s Technology Transfer Office reminds her audience that “what is available to everyone is of interest to no one,” a quote Arvidson attributes to Mark Bloom, a patent attorney at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. The clinic is renowned among patients for its leadership in heart surgery and among attorneys for its prowess in the licensing of intellectual property. Since in battle parlance, “to the victor go the spoils,” it’s likely that many a patent will be forfeited as industrial practitioners subrogate their role to the government.
For manufacturers, UV innovations might become another spinoff gift, like ski boots or ear thermometers - only this technology promises to save energy, space, and possibly American manufacturing jobs at a time when marginal improvements in productivity and profit can make the difference between surviving and closing up shop.
In 2005, The Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, in a paper titled “From Spin-off to Spin-On: Redefining the Military’s Role in Technology Development,” observed that “the technology base from which American firms compete in today’s commercial markets is the same technology base that determines whether or not the United States is prepared to respond to the national security concerns of the future. Americans can conjure many potential threats to their well-being, but only one technological arsenal with which to meet them.”
From computer chips to lasers, the bonds between military and industrial technology continue to draw tighter. UV technology is just part of the evolutionary chain in each of these areas.