New Hopkins institute to help protect soldiers

The Johns Hopkins University will use a $90 million award to form an institute that will help the Army develop lightweight materials to better protect soldiers and vehicles, university officials said Wednesday.

The Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute will focus on what happens to protective materials at the moment of intense impact.

"Both individuals and governments have become increasingly insecure over the last 10 years or so," said K.T. Ramesh, the professor who will direct the institute. The new program will "provide people with a way of thinking about these kinds of threats and figuring out how to protect yourself from those. That's the big intellectual deal here."

Or to put it another way: "Captain America needs a new shield, and we're going to work with the Army to build it," he said.

The institute will draw on 14 current faculty members and five or six new hires, Ramesh said. He also expects to hire five or six researchers and administrative staff.

Ramesh said researchers will delve into the basic science, down to the atomic level, of what happens to metals, ceramics, polymers and other materials that are subjected to an extreme impact.

"You can't develop a new protective material until you can understand what happens to it in extreme environments," he said. "Yet we must be able to design new materials if we want to protect ourselves from yet-unforeseen threats."

The money is coming from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. The program is planned for a five-year initial study, renewable for another five years. The award is among the largest ever granted to Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering.

Ramesh said the institute will focus on research, not making specific materials.

"The army has its own scientists," he said. "The idea is, they take the fundamental science that the universities do and then they can go work on the sensitive and classified material."

The institute's goal, he said, is "to produce a way of thinking that will allow the design of lightweight protective material systems that can be used for extreme dynamic conditions."

That new way of thinking could be useful in planning for catastrophic events away from the battlefield, he said. If an asteroid were heading toward Earth, for example, researchers could help choose the best strategies to divert it or break it up.

The new institute's labs, offices and related space will occupy about a third of Malone Hall, a 56,000-square-foot research building being built on Hopkins' Homewood campus, the university said.

The new building is to be completed in 2014. Until then, the institute will operate in existing facilities on campus.

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