Seven Penn State researchers win Pentagon grants

WASHINGTON — If a helicopter's rotors are spinning and its landing skids are on the ground, it starts to rock. Soon, it'll rock violently enough that it topples over and self-destructs — there are plenty of demonstrations on YouTube.

George Lesieutre, an aerospace engineer, works on dampers that stop that from happening. He does research at Penn State University's Helicopter Research Center and is currently trying to find lighter, cheaper, more aerodynamic dampers that will reduce noise and create a more stable machine. He also works on problems like how to put sensors on rotating blades, or how to generate power on the blades.

Luckily for him, the Army's interested.

Lesieutre is one of seven Penn State researchers whose experiments the Department of Defense is funding. The Pentagon awarded nearly $40 million in the form of 165 grants to 83 schools. Penn State received the highest number of grants given to any one school. The specific amount of each grant is being negotiated. The program announces awards annually, and the Army, Navy and Air Force each have research offices that decide the awards.

The purpose of the program, called the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, is to help laboratories purchase equipment costing more than $50,000.

One area of research that the military's interested in is making quieter aircraft engines. Crews on carrier decks can suffer hearing damage, and loud airplanes also annoy residents near military airbases.

Phillip Morris has been doing back-of-the-envelope calculations to modify the engine geometry of F-35 joint strike fighter engines to make them significantly quieter. The plane is an all-purpose fighter aircraft that's currently being tested in the Pawtuxet River area of Maryland.

The engines "are extremely loud, and of course the Navy's requirements are that when you look for noise reduction methods, you can't compromise performance," Morris said.

Morris said he and a colleague will be testing a concept using experiments and numerical simulations, which could fulfill the Navy's needs. The grant will cover costs for a few years of experimentation and simulations.

Another Penn State project that won a Pentagon grant works on making radar technology more efficient. Specifically, the technology reduces the amount of data collected by sampling the scene at a slower rate, without compromising the intricacy of the scene.

Ram Narayanan, a professor of electrical engineering, said the technology could be used in military contexts like identifying or tracking near- and far-range targets, looking through walls or detecting concealed objects.

It could be used in non-military contexts as well, such as identifying holes in bridges or buildings, or in human body imaging and sonography.

This technology "is useful for any change that you want to detect, and if the change is very small, you need to sample efficiently," Narayanan said.

The grant will allow Narayanan to construct an all-purpose radar for testing and study purposes.

Qing Wang, an engineering professor at Penn State, said a Defense Department grant will allow his lab to upgrade equipment and expand its research capabilities.

Wang's research aims to make better capacitors, which store energy and are widely used in products like portable electronics and hybrid vehicles. Part of the puzzle might be synthesizing a new material from polymers and tiny pieces of ceramic, or nanocomposites, at the molecular level.

"There's a great need in the military to have high efficiency devices to store energy," said Wang, who is working on a couple of projects funded by the Pentagon.

Wang said he'd like to see a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to engineering novel materials, and to his specialty, polymer research related to energy storage, at Penn State.

"This is important," Wang said. "We have a group of faculty working in this area, and I hope this (funding) helps us to build up some major pieces of infrastructure and act as a locus for research in this area."