On a recent morning, Jack Skinner, head of Montana Tech’s department of mechanical engineering, led a visitor through an airlock and into the university’s state-of-the-art nanotechnology laboratory, before entering a smaller room in the back that lacks ultraviolet light and will serve as a lithography bay for working with photosensitive polymers.
“We just went from a dirty area to a clean area to a cleaner area to the cleanest area,” Skinner said.
The laboratory is a work in progress, with high-tech equipment still protected by tape and crates sitting on the floors, but as it comes together in the school’s Natural Resources Research Center, Skinner says the facility will eventually play a crucial role in carrying out a variety of high-tech research funded by a series of grants from the Army Research Lab.
Those grants, received over the last five years, total nearly $13 million. And the latest grant is worth $2.75 million.
The new ARL grant will fund seven research tasks, each with a name (Metal Casting Instrumentation and High-Temperature Sensing for In-situ Process Verification, for example) that signals how truly advanced the science behind them will be.
But Skinner says the research is a continuation of the more traditional work done on Tech’s campus — and in his garage.
“I like to play with motorcycles, four-wheelers, cars, boats,” Skinner said. “I play with that stuff in my house, in the garage. That’s all we do here. But this is a different garage. These are different tools. And if you break something here, it’s a little more expensive. But it is the same problem solving. It’s just different methods for different problems, different sponsors.”
With the ARL as a sponsor, the money will be used for projects focused on addressing the Army’s need to transform the affordability, performance, adaptability, and environmental sustainability of materials needed to protect American warfighters and to improve national security and military effectiveness.
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In addition to continuing ongoing research into nanomaterials, additive manufacturing and other subjects, researchers at Tech will use the new money to begin new work on water purification for expeditionary campaigns and creating catalysts capable of neutralizing toxic chemical warfare agents.
But along with aiding the military, Skinner says the money plays a pivotal role in helping Tech realize its increasingly ambitious aims as a research institution and a place for graduate students.
“That (ARL) money is critical to build our infrastructure,” Skinner said. “And the infrastructure is to attract — and it’s to retain — people and resources.”
Proof of the funding’s power to help attract people and resources can be found in the fact that Tech’s first two materials science PhD graduates, who completed their work in the spring, did their doctoral research on projects funded by the ARL.
In addition, numerous other PhD students, master’s students, and undergraduates are also involved in ARL-funded research, along with about 15 faculty members in several departments.
As part of the collaboration with ARL, two Montana Tech undergraduates have had summer internships at ARL in Aberdeen, Maryland, mentored by Army researchers, who are collaborating with Tech. And this fall the campus launched a new master of science degree in materials science and engineering, complementing the doctoral program.
All of that together — the funding, the new nanotechnology lab, the growing student offerings and an expanding suite of highly advance equipment —means Tech has “some unique capabilities that people don’t have in the state,” Skinner said. “You have to go to a massive top-tier research institution in another state to get some of this equipment. You get the equipment, it’s hard to use, but we get the expertise going — that differentiates us.”
And that, Skinner says, is the ultimate goal: “We don’t want to be the last person to get on the bandwagon. We want to lead it.”