Innovation and the Military

Stephen DeAngelis

November 23, 2009

A common theme in many Hollywood scripts is that the military is only interested in science and technology because they are looking for new and more devastating weapons. Movies that incorporate this theme generally involve an evil military bureaucracy (normally represented by a reprehensible, if rogue, colonel) funding the research of a brilliant, but unwitting, scientist with the sole purpose of turning what is supposed to be a beneficial discovery into a weapon system. In real life, however, military innovations often play an important role the everyday routines of millions of people. Two quick examples are the Internet and the Global Positioning System. Another innovation that just may play an important role around the world could be military gum [“Doctors create gum that helps promote tooth health,” by Mary Meehan, Boston Herald, 12 November 2009]. Meehan reports:

“With the help of a gum chomping machine and years of careful chemistry, University of Kentucky researchers have developed a chewing gum that can help replace toothpaste and a toothbrush, thus improving the health of soldiers in the field as well as children in poor countries. Seriously. Gum. In what is known around the UK College of Pharmacy by the ever-so-catchy title of ‘the military gum project,’ an antimicrobial, known as KSL, is infused in chewing gum. KSL is anti-adhesive and abrasive agent that disrupts and helps dissolve plaque. And, as every toothpaste commercial has told us for years, fighting plaque is key to good dental health.”

As the old saw goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” When troops are engaged in small patrol activities in isolated areas where water is scarce and they have to carry all their own necessities from ammo to food, being able to replace some toothpaste and a toothbrush with some gum is a small but important matter. Healthy soldiers make better warriors — and dental health is as important as physical health. Meehan continues:

“Since World War I, thousands of American soldiers have suffered from the extreme form of gingivitis that can result in painful ulcers, infection and bleeding gums. You’ve probably heard it called ‘trench mouth.’ ‘Between World War II and Korea and Vietnam those numbers have not been changing,’ said Geoffrey Thompson, Commander of the U.S. Army Dental and Trauma Research Detachment, that sponsored the research at UK. Even today, about 15 percent of all Army sick calls are related to dental problems, said Thompson, who is both a colonel and a dentist. Not only do poor teeth take active soldiers out of duty, but getting treatment can put others in harm’s way. For every soldier who must be transported to a dentist in Iraq, Thompson said, seven others must ride in a convoy over often treacherous roads. There are other practical considerations, said Deluca, a professor in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at UK, who began the research in 2005. Soldiers have told him even the white spot left by rinsing toothpaste can help enemy trackers locate soldiers on the move. And, he said, if a solider can pack one more bullet or a toothbrush, you can guess what he or she is going to pick.”

I suspect that enemy trackers can use spit out gum as easily as expectorated toothpaste drops to track troop movements, but the other stated benefits of the gum are clearly evident. As Meehan suggests, however, not just soldiers can benefit from the gum’s properties.

“The gum could also be key in protecting children in impoverished nations from potentially deadly infections, said Abeer Al-Ghananeem, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences who took over leading the research last year. For example, she said, children born with AIDs in Africa often have serious and painful dental problems. The gum could enhance their quality of life.”

Meehan reports that the work of “Pat DeLuca, a professor in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at UK, who began the research about five years ago,” was technically more challenging than one might think. Researchers had to invent a way for the gum to release its active ingredients slowly “over the course of a good chew” rather than “in a burst with the first chomp.” They enlisted the help of an automated chewing machine owned by the Army so that they could conduct hundreds of experiments with results that could be precisely measured. What the machine couldn’t help them with was the taste of the gum. Meehan continues:

“The taste [of the gum], which is a crisp wintergreen, was determined the more old-fashioned way. [Abeer] Al-Ghananeem, [assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences who took over leading the research last year,] and her researchers did a fair amount of chewing.”

My suspicion is that it won’t take long for the major manufacturers of toothpaste to get in a bidding war for rights to produce the gum. The market for such a product could be huge in both the developed and developing worlds. The only place on earth that won’t have much of interest in the product is Singapore, where gum chewing is officially outlawed (except for therapeutic purposes — and even then it’s highly discouraged). Meehan indicates that the search is already on for a manufacturer.

“Clinical trials will begin and then the Army will look for a manufacturer to actually produce the gum, Thompson said. Al-Ghananeem envisions that eventually it will be commercially available over-the-counter for use by, perhaps, hikers going on remote treks. It is not designed, she said, to be a long-term replacement for toothbrush and toothpaste. Still, DeLuca said, something as seemingly simple as gum ‘can have amazing possibilities.’ ‘We are looking forward to some sort of global attention to the whole project,’ Al-Ghananeem added.”

The practicality and widespread applicability of military gum is immediately obvious to even casual observers. Other military-sponsored research projects aren’t quite so universally applicable to daily life; but they are nonetheless fascinating. I’ll just mention two more research projects being conducting at the University of Utah. The first involves exoskeletons (robots you strap on — like Iron Man) and the second involves a cloak of invisibility (used by such nefarious characters as the Klingons of Star Trek fame) [“U of U researchers are working to bring cloaking devices and more to the real world,” by John Blodgett, Continuum, Summer 2009]. The first also exists and the second remains only a possibility. Blodgett begins with the exoskeleton:Iron Man

“The … movie Iron Man offers a glimpse of what the Raytheon Company and U of U researchers have in the works—a kind of ‘wearable robot’ that allows a user to repeatedly lift up to 200 pounds, punch a speed bag, and run up stairs, all without tiring. Raytheon public relations has played up the semblance between the character in Iron Man and the exoskeleton suit. … Stephen Jacobsen BS’67 MS’70, University of Utah Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering, who leads the Raytheon Sarcos team in Salt Lake City, has described the exoskeleton not as a product of a ‘mad scientist’ but rather the result of a ‘process of getting together, understanding the problems [and] goals, and then designing something to satisfy the need.’ To him, it’s a blend of art, science, engineering, and design. … Even in still photographs, the exoskeleton looks like it’s in motion; the effect is heightened when Jameson isn’t wearing it. It seems to have jumped right out of CGI (computer-generated imagery) animation. Jameson steps into what appear to be Teva sandals made for lunar exploration and straps on the exoskeleton. The suit looks a bit awkward, but that’s belied by the degree to which it can predict, mimic, and magnify human motion. The suit appears tough and delicate all at once. The present exoskeleton is the third prototype built since the idea was conceived in 2000. It currently is under development for the United States Army as part of a two-year, $10-million contract—the only full exoskeleton the military has moved into the next development stage.”

As noted above, the “cloak of invisibility” discussed by Blodgett is a lot further off than the Iron Man suit. He writes:

“Now you see it, now you don’t. Invisibility at will has long been part of the world of superheroes, but now, with the advent of the superlens, the cloak of invisibility is jumping from the pages of comic books to the real world. Graeme Milton, Distinguished Professor of mathematics at the U, is beginning to see his work on cloaking come to light. It might seem unusual for a mathematician to get involved with invisibility, but Milton points out that applied mathematics is, in actuality, a broad discipline that encompasses biology, engineering, physics, and other areas of study. With a background in physics, Milton says it was ‘natural’ for him to become involved in this kind of work, which he and his colleagues Nicolae Nicorovici and Ross McPhedran, at the University of Sydney in Australia, began in 1994. It’s difficult to state their work in terms other than how Milton describes it. While researching properties of arrays of composite materials that contained coated cylinders, they discovered some fascinating properties: When the shell coating a single cylinder had negative properties, that cylinder would act like a solid cylinder of much larger radius. ‘The shell, in effect, acted like a magnifying glass,’ explains Milton. ‘That’s where our research started, and we should have followed it up further at the time but didn’t realize the importance of the result.’ Milton’s interest in the problem rekindled in 2000 when Sir John Pendry, a solid state physics theorist at Imperial College London, obtained a closely related result and found himself awash in the scientific spotlight. He discovered that a slab of material with negative electrical and magnetic properties acted like a lens—not a normal lens but one unimpeded by diffraction. This lens was christened a ‘superlens,’ and Milton explains one potential application of the discovery. ‘The reason microscopes can’t see atoms is because they are limited by diffraction. [The superlens] promises new types of microscopes that might see much more detailed information.’ Essentially, Milton’s work in 1994 had identified the first cylindrical superlens.”

A quick physics lesson on diffraction. Because light beams travel in waves, they tend to “leak” at the ends, as described by Isaac Azimov [Understanding Physics, Volume II, 1966]. That’s the reason that shadows have fuzzy rather than sharp edges. Azimov writes, “This phenomenon of a wave form bending sideways at either end of a wave front is called diffraction, and this is, in fact, easily observed in water waves and sound waves.” The amount of diffraction depends on the wavelength of the light. Red has a longer wave length than violet and, therefore, diffracts more. The only reason we see rainbows in the sky is because of diffraction as light travels through water vapor. The breakthrough with the superlens is that it apparently defies the laws of physics because light passing through it is “unimpeded by diffraction.” So what does that have to do with invisibility you ask? Blodgett continues:

“Milton was on sabbatical in his native Australia when he came up with the notion of cloaking. It was in response to a comment by Alexei L. Efros, Distinguished Professor of physics at the U, who saw a potential paradox associated with the superlens: If you put a point source near the superlens, the math would suggest that the superlens would absorb an infinite amount of energy; but how could this be possible if the source were providing only a finite amount of energy? Milton and his collaborators found that cloaking was the answer to this paradox. But where previous research posited that the cloaking region lies inside the cloaking device, Milton’s work suggests that it lies outside the device. ‘It’s a completely different mechanism for cloaking, one that even sci-fi writers haven’t thought about,’ he says. ‘And the cloaking device in our case is a superlens’ that isolates particles from their surroundings, creating a cancellation effect that makes them appear invisible from the outside.”

Although cloaks of invisibility may sound exciting, what is really exciting is the mathematics behind the idea. Blodgett admits that cloaking devices are probably a long way off and other applications of the mathematics even further off. But those other applications could prove to be lifesaving. He concludes:

“The work still has a ways to go before it can be applied to real-world situations, whether to microscopes or something else. Milton even muses about related technology some day, long away, protecting a building from being destroyed in an earthquake. ‘There are military [and other] applications that people wonder about,’ Milton acknowledges. ‘But it’s hard to predict at this stage’ what other kinds of uses visionary thinkers might yet devise.”

In other posts about innovation, I’ve remarked that one never really knows how an innovation is going to be used until you put it into peoples’ hands. Technologies imagined for use in one sector often find amazing and important uses in other sectors once creative people get a hold of them. Although the military does fund research into weapons systems, they also fund basic research that can help mankind. I suspect, however, that the movies will still find a way to keep those rogue colonels in business turning good science bad.