As Arctic ice melts under the impact of rising global temperatures, many nations are salivating at the prospect of long-frozen minerals now accessible. Russia, Canada, and Denmark are extending territorial claims in the Arctic, while China eagerly envisions new ice-free shipping routes across the polar region.
That’s why DARPA, the Pentagon’s research agency, wants to control ice.
While the U.S. has never really been an Arctic power, Washington cannot afford to let other nations control such a vital region. Yet, the problem is operating in such a harsh area. “Currently, significant physiological and materials barriers exist to establishing and maintaining a force capable of sustained operations in ice-prone environments, requiring new technology solutions,” according to DARPA.
As German soldiers painfully learned in the Russian blizzards in 1941, combat in below-zero temperatures is arduous and deadly. Flesh becomes frostbitten, engines seize up, and materials become brittle. Ships can accumulate ice on their hulls, making them unstable. Arctic countries have been devising means to combat that. For example, Russia – with long experience of operating in northern climes – has deployed special units and weapons optimized for Arctic warfare.
The U.S. agency, however, wants to take a leaf from nature.
Related: Why the military has an office dedicated to tracking the world’s biggest blocks of ice
ICE against ice
DARPA’s Ice Control for cold Environments, or ICE, project wants to develop ways to mitigate the problem of ice at the molecular level, by examining how natural organisms defend themselves against ice.
“Insects, fish, plants, and freeze-tolerant organisms have evolved natural mechanisms to prevent ice formation and thrive in extreme cold,” said ICE program manager Anne Cheever. “These properties could be leveraged as part of the ICE program to develop persistent anti-icing coatings for surfaces and even produce specialized small molecules that work synergistically with biodegradable antifreeze proteins.”
ICE will search for “biologically sourced or inspired molecules to enable tuned inhibition or nucleation of ice crystallization, propagation, and adhesion,” according to the DARPA presolicitation.
The agency cites examples such as ice-binding proteins – found in fish, bacteria, and plants – that affect ice formation at the molecular level. Or, pigments found in algae and bacteria that absorb certain wavelengths of light, which affects the melting of snow or ice. Other examples include protective polysaccharides – carbohydrates such as starch and cellulose – that have cryoprotective properties against ice.
Related: Project Horizon: Nukes and shotguns on the moon
A collaborative project
The four-year ICE program will develop molecules that prevent ice crystals from forming or from adhering to surfaces such as a ship’s hull. To accomplish this, DARPA must find ways of measuring ice properties. Studies of ice crystals lack “standardized, quantitative, and reproducible assays to measure key physical properties of ice crystal formation and maturation, as well as their corresponding modulation,” the agency notes.
Interestingly, DARPA wants research teams to “collaborate with ethical, legal, and societal implications experts and ensure the research addresses any related concerns.” This suggests that scientists may encounter resistance from animal rights groups, or perhaps environmentalists concerned about Arctic experiments.
Ultimately, DARPA wants to control numerous properties of ice, including type, size, shape, texture, freezing point, melting point, strength, and thickness. The payoff will be ice-resistant equipment – and soldiers – that can survive the Arctic environment.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Sandboxx and Forbes. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Feature Image: A Naval Special Warfare jump master performs in-flight duties during a high-altitude low-opening jump, during the 2022 Arctic Edge Exercise. Arctic Edge is a U.S. Northern Command biennial defense exercise designed to demonstrate and exercise the ability to rapidly deploy and operate in the Arctic. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Trey Hutcheson)
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