The U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., where the Army develops food, clothing, portable shelters and other combat support systems, has a slogan: ``Technology Driven. Warfighter Focused.''
If officials added the tagline ``Open for Business,'' they'd create an apt description of ongoing collaborations between the center's research and development laboratories and private companies seeking future military contracts.
The polymer film center at the Natick labs is a case in point: Nine researchers at the center have worked with plastics processors since 2007 to create new films for packaging individual items in Meals, Ready-to-Eat, the self-contained, lightweight field rations used since the 1980s by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
The resulting projects, which meet joint-service specifications developed by the Department of Defense, were on display May 4-8 at the Plastics Encounter trade show in Milwaukee and included films made with ethylene vinyl alcohol and nano-nylon, with barrier and oxygen-scavenging properties.
``We have nine-layer cast films and five-layer blown films that we're looking at and we also have a small project where we are incorporating [high density polyethylene] microspheres into film structures so we can try to add durability, insulation and also reduce the weight of packaging,'' said Danielle Froio, a center materials engineer.
Jeanne Lucciarini, center team leader of advanced processes and packaging, said for several years the lab has been open to conducting experiments for processors working on new food packaging films.
The facility includes a Thermoprism TSE-16 twin-screw extruder for compounding nanocomposites, as well as compounding plastics with other additives such as antioxidants and oxygen scavengers.
In addition, there's a ThermoHaake PolyLab system that has three extruders with single-screw and conical twin-screw capability; a Collin Teachline multilayer coextruder for prototyping films; and a ChemInstruments HLCL-1000 hot-melt coater/laminator capable of producing samples of adhesives that can be laminated to foils, films and papers.
``Over the years we had been compiling all of this really nice, state-of-the art equipment and finally got a laboratory to put it in. When we had companies come in, they would look at our laboratory and say, `This is nicer than some [resin and film] manufacturers,''' Lucciarini said. ``We just came up with the idea to give it a name and to get the word out that we have this capability and we might as well let other people that might need it really take advantage of it.''
The lab has testing equipment that can check the permeability, flexibility, tear strength and impact resistance, she said.
The facility's focus is on developing films for military use; but if a processor comes up with something that has applications in the civilian world, that's fine, she said. The goal is to leverage R&D relationships with several potential defense suppliers in case of a national emergency, Lucciarini said.
``Nobody really wins if we're buying films that no one else in the world is making except one company,'' she said. ``You get into a situation where, if we have to mobilize, if we have to go out and buy millions of rations and we're paying one company to do it and their equipment breaks down, we're in trouble.''
Along with most end-users in food packaging, the U.S. military is big on lightweighting these days, for a couple of reasons: it is under orders to be environmentally friendly, and to keep the Pentagon's shipping costs down. ``Fuel costs affect the military just like everybody else,'' Lucciarini said.
In addition to improving recyclability, there's also a more practical reason to get rid of foil packaging in MREs, Froio said. ``By removing the foil, we can use advanced processing technologies like high-pressure pasteurization which could give us really a bit more high-quality food.''
That gets the Natick labs closer to the day when troops will no longer think up derogatory nicknames for MREs, including Meals Rejected by Everyone; Meals, Rarely Edible; and some that are just too salty to print.