DARPA program aims to take advantage of natural biological adaptations to control ice crystals

DARPA’s new Ice Control for cold Environments (ICE) program aims to control the physical properties of ice crystals to protect military assets and personnel for enhanced operational capabilities in extremely cold environments. ICE plans to take advantage of biological adaptations to cold environments to develop new bio-based and inspired materials to achieve this goal. New technologies developed through ICE will facilitate sustained operations through the development of strategies to prevent frostbite and materials for anti-icing approaches.

Microbes, plants and other animals have adapted to live in cold environments, unlike humans. While other organisms have developed ways to manipulate the ice itself to protect themselves and sustain life, people continue to pile clothing, break ice, and burn fuels and materials to mitigate the impact of cold. According to a 2020 Military Health System (MHS) report, frostbite was the most common type of cold injury among active component service members across all four services.1. Targeted stakeholder outreach and engagement reinforced that frostbite poses a substantial risk to the mission due to insufficient medical countermeasures, and that ice accretion on the ministry’s critical maritime equipment Department of Defense (DOD) can result in decreased seaworthiness, increased hazard on ship surfaces, and degraded electronics and machinery performance.

The warming Arctic has resulted in an expanded and evolving operational zone where the US military must counter peer adversaries, despite prolonged extremely cold temperatures. Currently, there are significant physiological and material barriers to establishing and sustaining a force capable of sustained operations in ice-prone environments, requiring new technological solutions. To address these capability gaps, ICE seeks to discover new ice control technologies, screen performance under simulated operational conditions for ice modulation, and testing in one or more application areas, such as preventing frostbite and de-icing equipment.

“Freeze-resistant insects, fish, plants and organisms have evolved natural mechanisms to prevent ice formation and thrive in extreme cold,” said Anne Cheever, ICE program manager. “These properties could be exploited in the ICE program to develop persistent anti-icing coatings for surfaces and even produce specialized small molecules that work synergistically with biodegradable antifreeze proteins.”

The three-phase, four-year research effort will require artists to discover, optimize and formulate a wide range of candidate molecules that limit ice crystal formation, growth and adhesion. Throughout all phases, artists will be required to engage with the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory of the US Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center for testing and evaluation. In addition, the teams will collaborate with experts in ethical, legal and societal implications and ensure that the research addresses all related concerns. At the end of the program, performers will be asked to demonstrate the properties of ice crystallization control (adhesion, inhibition, or induction) and provide preliminary safety data for relevant DOD applications.

“Preventing operator injury, preserving and extending the operational life of equipment, and the asymmetric tactical advantage offered by new disruptive technologies are tenants of DOD policy,” Cheever added. “The ability to control and modulate the properties of ice crystals will provide new capabilities, actionable solutions, and strategic advantage for cold weather operations.”

For more information on ICE Broad’s announcement, visit: https://sam.gov/opp/c7f6ab6db13f40b7be8842026a3afcfd/view.

Learn more about DARPA