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Looking to the Future: Advances in Nanotechnology, an Interview with Travis Earles from Lockheed Martin

 

Kris Walker talks to Travis Earles from Lockheed Martin discussing future innovations within nanotechnology as well as the advanced research being undertaken at Lockheed Martin.

KW: Lockheed Martin is conducting a lot of research into Nanotechnology, why is this area important to Lockheed and the industries you are involved in?

TE: Lockheed Martin has been investing in designing new materials, optimizing current materials and creating scalable manufacturing processes that enable us to revolutionize many of the products we create. Our focus represents the full spectrum, from materials to manufacturing. In fact, we have been working with materials and nanotechnology research and development since 2006.

Our work in nanotechnology is revealing a deep well of potential. Through innovative approaches, we are creating remarkable new materials that dramatically improve and create capabilities, and we are partnering with universities and businesses around the world to further those capabilities. 

Far more than mere engineering at increasingly smaller dimensions, we are expanding our ability to observe and manipulate matter at the nanoscale to produce superior, multifunctional applications that are key discriminators for our technology platforms—in air, on land, at sea and in space.

KW: What devices are you able to integrate carbon nanotubes within?

TE: Our nanotechnology development has formed the foundation for innovative, affordable solutions, systems and products in aerospace and defense, and also in renewable energy, robotics and other adjacencies.

We are able to integrate carbon nanomaterials in a variety of forms into carbon, glass, metals and composite additives, resulting in bulk materials with superior structural and/or conductive properties. There are many more areas we are exploring as well.

On Juno, a spacecraft currently on its way to Jupiter, we used carbon nanostructure composite supports that provide an electrostatic discharge path, electrical grounding and reduced weight. The supports also reduced Juno’s weight by incorporating several separate functions into the structure itself.

Similarly, we are transitioning cost-efficient advanced nanocomposites to benefit the F-35 fighter and our Littoral Combat Ship in terms of size, weight, performance and affordability improvements.
 

©Lockheed Martin - Carbon nanotube field effect transistor.

KW: Why are Carbon Nanotube sensors so effective? What does this allow you to do?

TE: Carbon nanotube (CNT) sensors are effective because we can leverage multiple properties (e.g., electrical, thermal, optical, chemical and structural) to determine what or how they will sense their environment.

Additionally, CNTs could allow us to create flexible and even transparent sensors, as well as sensors with increasing sensitivity and specificity at a lower cost than traditional sensors, potentially simplifying actual designs and reducing manufacturing costs.

As an example, CNT fabrics are at the core of Lockheed Martin’s chemical sensor platform technology that can be designed to detect a wide range of gases and volatile organic compounds. This technology platform could lead to a postage-sized sensor that could “sniff-out” toxins in the air or water. The small size and robust design of the sensor enable significant mobility.

KW: Stanford University recently were able to make a processor out of Carbon Nanotubes, do you think they are a viable successor to silicon in electronics?

TE: CNTs are one of a number of high potential alternatives to silicon. The technology is likely to play a significant role in developing next-generation electronic circuits and components. Lockheed Martin has been developing CNT-based devices for some time, including our NRAM and CNT FET technology (more information is available on the Lockheed Martin website).

KW: What work are you doing with graphene? How do the applications of graphene differ from those of carbon nanotubes?

TE: We are working on fundamental graphene synthesis, characterization and testing, building on our substantial work with carbon nanomaterials over the past few years. The differences between the various forms of graphene (e.g., platelets, inks and films/sheets) and types of carbon nanotubes drive application targets. These can overlap, but generally we want to leverage the unique properties of these materials and optimize them for things like sensing, energy storage and multifunctional structures. Doing so gives our aerospace, defense and commercial customers significant advantages in their mission systems and environments. We’re making great progress and are excited about the future.
 

©Lockheed Martin - Molecular model of Perforene membrane for desalination.

KW: One of your focuses is in water filtration? What are the benefits of using graphene within this area?

TE: Lockheed Martin was issued a patent for Perforene™, a graphene-based filter with strategically placed nanoscale holes that allow water molecules to pass through but stop chemicals and other unwanted particles. We are developing Perforene with the goal to ultimately filter water and other substances more efficiently and effectively than today’s industry standards.

There are many benefits of using graphene for filtration. Graphene can handle a wide range of harsh environments in terms of pH, chemical content and temperature. We can also leverage the material’s conductivity to reduce fouling. Moreover, graphene’s remarkable strength enables us to push traditional limits in permeability and requisite high pressure systems.

KW: Are there any other applications where you are using graphene?

TE: For such a fundamental material with such unique properties and variety of forms, we see many broad potential applications in both military and commercial spaces. We are actively exploring ways to leverage graphene-based materials in electronics, energy storage, antennas, and sensors, as well as multifunctional and conformal structures.  

KW: One recent application of graphene is in supercapacitors which could replace lithium batteries. How do you think Nanomaterials will change energy storage technology?

TE: Today, we are hindered by the limitations of the batteries we use in everyday life, for transportation needs, electronics and defense systems. Nanotechnology enables significant performance and technology improvements in the area of energy storage. By using carbon nanostructures and silicon, we are able to create highly efficient, environmentally sustainable and cost-effective energy storage solutions.

An example is our development of high-density supercapacitors. Compared to conventional capacitors, the energy density of supercapacitors is orders of magnitude higher. Compared to batteries, supercapacitors can cycle millions of cycles rather than mere hundreds of cycles, and have significantly higher power density. Supercapacitors have the potential to fill the gap between conventional batteries and standard capacitors.
 

©Lockheed Martin - supercap is a prototype supercapacitor.

KW: Some of your work has been on developing flow batteries. What is the concept behind flow batteries? And why are they better than existing technologies?

TE: The flow battery system concept is to circulate two analyte solutions separated physically by a membrane that allows ion exchange and thus electrical current. The functional longevity of the solutions and sheer size and capacity are some of the notable advantages of the flow battery concept. For industrial scale storage, load balancing and other grid-level applications, few batteries can match the theoretical performance of a flow battery system. Nonetheless, to date the high cost of such battery systems has limited their adoption. 

Lockheed Martin’s Applied Nanostructured Solutions (ANS) subsidiary has been working to reduce the expense of flow battery systems by using carbon nanostructure technology to dramatically lower the cost of the cell stacks that charge and discharge stored energy.

KW: How do you see nanotechnology developing within medical devices?

TE: There is already a lot of work being done with nanotechnology in medicine, from nanoscale tools that detect and treat cancer to targeted drug delivery. Ten years ago, I had the privilege of working with remarkable leaders at the National Cancer Institute to assemble what was, at the time, a groundbreaking interdisciplinary alliance of cancer biologists, clinical oncologists, organic chemists, physicists and engineers to spark innovation in nanomedicine. The alliance has since resulted in dozens of diagnostics and therapeutics now in various stages of clinical trials moving toward promising and much needed applications.

At Lockheed Martin, we think about how to use nanotechnology-based sensors and devices to serve and better protect our servicemen and women. For example, typical flight platform readiness tests number in the hundreds, yet we currently have little to no quantification of operator readiness. As part of a unique collaboration known as the Nano Bio Manufacturing Consortium, we are working with Air Force Research Laboratory, General Electric and other partners on developing a flexible, wearable nano-enabled sensor that could better sense and assess pilot mission readiness.

About Travis Earles

Travis Earles leads and coordinates Lockheed Martin’s advanced materials and nanotechnology initiatives across the corporation. Lockheed Martin is a global leader in security and aerospace principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services.

Previously, Earles served for four years as Assistant Director for Nanotechnology in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, where he was responsible for oversight and coordination of the $1.8 billion U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative. In addition to his emerging technology strategy and policy leadership, Earles has broad experience in biomedical nanotechnology development, having helped to launch the $144 million Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer in 2005 while at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. His formal training is in biomedical engineering, and he holds a master’s degree in technology management as well as an MBA.  Follow Travis @TMEarles

Date Added: Dec 11, 2013 | Updated: Dec 11, 2013
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