DARPA wants to turn bottles into gun lubricant or food
An army marches on its belly and leaves garbage in its wake.
Before the fight even begins, the military begins to generate waste. Disposal of waste, such as packaging, containers and disused packaging, is a problem at every stage of the life cycle. It takes energy to ship packaging to a country, it takes dedicated resources to get rid of it, and improper disposal can cause lasting damage to the environment and to people who breathe fumes from combustion pits. . This is why DARPA, the Pentagon’s blue sky projects wing, wants future supplies to be packaged in waste that is itself useful a second time, whether as fuel, building material, or food itself. .
This is the goal of DARPA’s ReSource program, which will soon enter its second phase. In the first phase, teams from Battelle (a private research firm frequently hired by the government), Iowa State University, MIT and Michigan Technological University, alongside government partners, studied proofs of concept. for such a waste conversion.
This waste can take many forms. Consider one of the simplest: a disposable or recyclable water bottle. It offers many virtues, and of course the water it contains for a thirsty soldier is its primary vocation. It is autonomous, well proportioned, universally necessary and vital in a pinch. The bottle also has its own mass, modest in insulation and massive in scale if there is a lot. Right now, once the bottle is used up, it’s just a waste. But ReSource envisions a second life after death useful for this waste.
[Related: Australian soldiers are testing out stealthy e-bikes for scouting missions]
“Artist teams are tasked with developing systems to break down mixed waste, including common plastics, reformulating waste at the molecular level into strategic materials and chemicals,” DARPA describes, “and recovering usable, purified products such than edible oils, lubricants and macronutrients. “
The ReSource program was first announced in 2019, and in 2020 the Michigan Technological University team described their plan to turn plastic into protein powder with the help of bacteria.
“Our project is trying to find ways to convert plastic waste into protein powder or nutritional supplements and lubricants,” Steve Techtmann, assistant professor of biological sciences at Michigan Technological University, said in a statement. “The general idea is that plastic is difficult to break down using biology, because it is made up of a polymer and its units are stuck together. To break down the polymer, some bacteria can do it, but it’s very slow. So, to quickly convert plastic into food, we need an alternative approach. “
This approach, at least as envisioned in 2020, was to create some sort of black box-type processor, which would put empty water bottles on one end, use the heat to decompose the bottle, and then pass it through a chamber. bacteria that would continue to process the plastic. The end product would be a protein powder, ready to be mixed into a soldier’s next drink.
Much work on ReSources still needs to be done to prove that such methods are even viable, not to mention the obstacle of getting soldiers to mix leftover processed water bottles into their next drink.
[Related: Tank in trouble? The Army can just 3D print the part.]
Another use case, pursued by both Michigan and the Battelle team, focuses on a more anticipated conversion product, which completely ignores the food route and focuses on guns.
Battelle chose to focus its conversion process on polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, two plastics commonly used in milk jugs and single-use water bottles, respectively. “The team had a choice of a variety of food, pharmaceutical and chemical products and a selected weapon lubricant, as the material is both essential for fighters on the ground,” Battelle said in a statement.
Firearms are a series of moving parts, and the friction that causes firearms to jam can be fatal. Converting packaging waste into gun lubricant increases the likelihood that soldiers will have what they need on hand and reduces the amount of lubricant that must be shipped to forward bases in the first place.
For the Battelle process, they also turned to bacteria to break down the components. The bacteria self-replicate, which means that only a small amount of microorganisms would be needed to start the process. Like the Michigan team, Battelle described the time of biological degradation as the biggest obstacle, with an expressed desire to speed up the process.
Incinerators and burns, which for years have been the U.S. military’s default waste disposal method in Afghanistan, pose health risks in the form of hazardous byproducts, lasting soil contamination and the additional risk of light; to operate an incinerator at night is to light up part of a base, allowing hostile forces to better see their targets.
Even if ReSource’s early results don’t deliver quite the speed we want, the ability to convert the country’s waste into useful resources would be a huge boon.