From left, Dr. Nick Glavin, Dr. Ajit Roy, and Dr. Michael McConney stand with a nanomaterial Deposition Chamber at the AFRL's Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory said it is working to increase availability of rare nanomaterials and strengthen U.S. scientific and manufacturing ties with India.

Nanomaterials are thin – about 1/100,000th of the thickness of a human hair.

AFRL and its partners are harnessing nanomaterials’ unique optical, magnetic, electrical, and other properties for improved optoelectronics, quantum devices, high-temperature coatings, thermal management, and more.

But a lack of scalable nano manufacturing has impeded progress, according to “Exploration of Nano Manufacturing Scale up Opportunities with India,” a white paper written by Dr. Ajit K. Roy, Principal Materials Research Engineer and Computational Group Leader in AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.

The white paper was a collaborative effort with representatives from Rice University, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IITK).

Roy guided the India-nano strategy development effort with the help of co-leads Dr. Nick Glavin and Dr. Michael McConney. Glavin focused on ties to academia in India, and McConney cultivated links to industry.

AFRL Chief Technologist Dr. Tim Bunning was part of a meeting at Rice University on July 29 in which the white paper partners organized for a year-long study of how to leverage India’s scientific and manufacturing expertise to increase the availability of nanomaterials.

The white paper identified four nano manufacturing challenge topics:

• Overcoming the non-uniformity in nano-scale structure-property
• Process modelling, low-cost processing and scalability issues
• Identifying conditions for 2D materials growth below 400 degrees Celsius -- compatible with the semiconductor industry
• Nanostructure defect and morphology control

AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing and the lab’s Sensors, Munitions, and Materials and Manufacturing directorates are contributing expertise to the challenge topics.

After the year of study, the international team will present recommendations in two papers addressing the policy aspect of industrial cooperation, and the tech sprints associated with technical challenges in nano manufacturing.

“The effort will be considered to be a success if the U.S. is able to develop projects with India in advancing scalable and low-cost nano manufacturing technology via leveraging skill and resources between the two countries,” Roy said.

In September, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the Indian Air Force signed a landmark $22 million agreement to co-develop air-launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). It was the first co-development project under the DTTI.

Roy said the new nano manufacturing initiative has its roots in a successful ongoing project with India DRDO-Jodhpur lab to develop printable flexible electronics (PFLEX). That effort began in June 2018, and involved $10.6 million split evenly between the two countries.

He said there is an increased emphasis -- especially from the U.S. side of the Joint Technical Group (JTG) -- on India collaboration to include India academics in future Project Agreements (PAs). The JTG oversees S&T collaboration and approves joint projects between the U.S. and India. The group has been in place for several years and meets annually in coordination with all defense services between the two countries.

“India’s top-tier universities offer vast potential for tapping talent and expertise as compared to that of DRDO labs,” he said. “DRDO management is cooperative with this approach and India academics are to be considered in scoping future PAs, which will be a positive direction for potential quid pro quo resource leveraging.”

In 2019, Roy presented an India science and technology engagement plan to the then director of AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, Tim Sakulich (AFRL India Lead) and then Materials and Manufacturing Directorate Chief Scientist Dr. Tim Bunning. Sakulich is now Executive Director of AFRL and Bunning is AFRL Chief Technology Officer.

Roy said the emphasis of his plan was to use PAs to increase participation of India academics through DRDO, which could fund Indian universities with bigger joint projects.

“In the current framework, the projects under the Air Force Asian Office of Aerospace Research and Development (AOARD), and Indo-U.S. S&T Forum funding are resource-limited and small,” Roy said. “But if DRDO and India academics are pulled together, the potential could be huge and long term in India collaboration.”

Sakulich’s comment was, “‘Not “if” – make it happen’”, said Roy.

Brian McJilton, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Small Business Directorate, said he learned of the university/international/AFRL collaboration as a potential Science & Technology 2030 Strategy partner-funded initiative last year.