Academy Chemistry Dept. agreement brings new elements to the table

Cadet 1st Class Kristian Knuths tests a polymer sample in the Academy's chemistry laboratory. Knuth is working with local company CTI Inks as part of his independent study course. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadet 1st Class Kristian Knuths tests a polymer sample in the Academy's chemistry laboratory. Knuth is working with local company CTI Inks as part of his independent study course. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Academy officials say a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between the Chemistry Research Center here and a local corporation could lead to big success in the future.

The agreement with Chromatic Technologies Inc. in Colorado Springs started when the company donated materials to the Chemistry Department lab curricula connecting chemical concepts to interesting applications - several small buckets of different inks that change to a different color when cooled. About a year later, CTI and the Chemistry Department here are developing new business lines together.

CTI is well-known for its inks. Started in a dorm at Cornell University, CTI's color-changing inks now turn the mountains blue on beer cans and show how much power batteries have left. They also provide the ink on the thermal indicator for a syrup and are now collaborating with the Academy to develop a new set of inks.

"Basically, they want to increase the temperature range when the colors change," said Dr. Scott Iacono, director of the Chemistry Research Center. "It's an opportunity for our cadets to explore a real problem for a real company. We'll be synthesizing new types of dyes that respond to a wider range of temperatures, but also change color completely."

As on the beer cans, the ink changes when the beer is cold - but only to a darker blue.

"We're going to come up with a complete color change - from yellow to green, for instance," Iacono said.

CTI Inks is the largest manufacturer of themochromic inks in the world, Iacona said, but lacks the analytical resources and laboratory equipment of the Academy. Terry Clayton, CTI's chief technology officer, said company chose to work at the Academy because of its sterling reputation.

"The Academy has a strong research program and state-of-the-art facilities," he said. "The collaboration between the Academy and CTI will give cadets experience in developing new technology. CTI benefits by getting access to state-of-the-art research facilities and the brain power of the Air Force academy students and faculty."

CTI prides itself on its innovation pipeline, fueled by ideas from companies around the globe, Clayton said. He said the hope is that working with the Academy will increase innovation at the company, allowing it to create new products at a quicker pace.

"The Cooperative Research and Development Agreement will no doubt increase our ability to develop more technology at a higher velocity," Clayton said. "CTI will also work with Academy cadets interested in pursuing careers in chemistry and engineering who could join our organization."

CTI has already hired a former worker in the Chemistry Department. Dr. Endrit Shurda worked for Iacono as a National Research Council post-doctoral researcher.

"He's one example about what's attractive about working with the Academy - the great people," Clayton said. "I always enjoy meeting and sharing ideas with fellow scientists. There are exciting materials science, power and functional dye projects going on at the Academy."

The long-term goal is to create heat- and cold-sensitive sensors that can be used by the Air Force and the Defense Department as well as develop materials that are sensitive to light - and some that will even emit their own light.  The Academy is already working on projects like that for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency,  Iacono said.

"There's research that overlaps between the two," he said. "You never know what is going to come out - chemistry is more basic science, but it's also about the research and development."

Cadets involved in the research and development project say it's a chance to delve into something deeper than textbook problems.

"I took the independent study course so I can really dig deep into the problem and find solutions," said Cadet 1st Class Kristian Knuths. "It's a chance to work on something outside a textbook, and to develop your own solutions to a problem."

He's picking up polymer research from cadets who are now second lieutenants, and taking it to the next level.

"We're going to study polymers that conduct electrons," he said. "So they'll be good for things like solar cells or light-emitting materials. We're getting closer to usable materials for industry."

Knuths is continuing research into polymers from the previous academic year, and Steve Budy - the newest employee in the Chemistry Research Center - says the research will eventually develop dyes into plastics. 

"In the long term, they can be used as sensors for explosive devices," he said. "That's the bigger picture of where this research is headed."