4/25/2018 – ARLINGTON, Va. – The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), a directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), is responsible for the basic research investment for the Air Force. It is an endeavor laden with risk and reward; challenge and discovery; ideas and innovation, all in support of the warfighter. One approach AFOSR takes in shaping the future of the Air Force and pushing innovative technologies forward is to strategically invest in diverse areas of research that can lead to new spheres of science. Equally important to supporting advances in basic science, but often underappreciated, is the chrysalis of the strong relationships forged over decades of cooperation in pursuit of discovery.
Early Support for Professor Luigi Nicolais
“The project supported by AFOSR in 1977 has a remarkable meaning: a seed for science and knowledge generation in the field of Materials Science and Engineering on composite materials.”
-Prof. Luigi Nicolais
One such relationship began with an investment in 1977 by AFOSR Program Officer, Dr. John Halpin, who funded a young Italian materials scientist in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Naples. Professor Luigi Nicolais submitted a proposal that was accepted by AFOSR entitled, “Effect of Applied Stress, Thermal Environmental and Water in Epoxy Resins.” Nicolais was interested in composite materials and his team conducted a series of absorption experiments that included the study of the physicochemical behaviors of epoxy resins containing absorbed water. The results of Nicolais’s research were published in a paper entitled, “Environmental Aging of Epoxy Resins: Synergistic Effect of Sorbed Moisture, Temperature, and Applied Stress.”
AFOSR’s early support was significant to Nicolais’s research and led to extensive collaboration between the University of Naples and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Furthermore, these efforts substantially contributed to more intensive collaboration with Boeing, where Nicolais developed rheological and thermo-kinetic models from the cure of epoxy based composite laminates by using the heat transfer and heat generating characteristics of polymerizable systems. The results of this research were published in a paper entitled, “Dielectric characterization of water sorption in epoxy resin matrices.”
Now considered one of the early pioneers of research in composite polymer materials, Nicolais made breakthrough contributions to greater understanding of the properties, interfaces, design and technology of advanced structures, with a concentration in aeronautic applications. As he reflects on his career, Nicolais acknowledges, “The project supported by AFOSR in 1977 has a remarkable meaning: a seed for science and knowledge generation in the field of Materials Science and Engineering on composite materials.” For example, in 1989, Nicolais and his team developed a model for predicting chemorheological behavior of thermoset composites that eventually led to the development of an intelligent autoclave, also supported jointly by Boeing and Alenia. His scientific contributions have also benefited society as a whole, leading to improvements in the reduction of fuel consumption, recycling, and biodegradation.
The pioneering research activities performed by Nicolais, and his team, with the support of AFOSR allowed for the establishment of a Materials Science and Engineering school on composite materials, that provides specific competences in the aeronautic sector. These competences have set a series of activities that have led to develop a successful integrated system for aerospace R&D in Campania Region with proficient Universities and Public Research Centers. Moreover, this know-how has contributed to the realization of different technological solutions for Boeing 787 design process and optimal material identification for specific applications in the airframe.
Over the course of the next thirty years Nicolais not only became one of the leading world-renowned experts in his field, he was also elected as President of Sciences & Technologies for University of Naples and founded the School of Materials Engineering. His many achievements included seminal contributions to materials science and Nicolais was recognized with the Award of Order of Merit by the President of the Republic of Italy. Later, Nicolais was appointed as the Minister of Public Innovation and eventually was selected to serve as the President of the National Research Council of Italy (CNR), the nation’s largest public research organization, from February 2012 to February 2016. As the President of CNR, Nicolais strengthened Italy’s national and international science and technology cooperation strategy.
The work of Nicolais and Professor Luigi Ambrosio
Throughout his successful career, Nicolais continued to teach at the University of Naples and maintained many important academic relationships, including one with former graduate student, Prof. Luigi Ambrosio. As Nicolais’s student in the 1970’s, Ambrosio had a keen interest in how composite materials could be used for artificial tendons and ligaments. Under Nicolais’s mentorship, Ambrosio researched concepts that combined knowledge of composite materials with human body applications and this biomimetic approach helped advance the use of biomaterials for health applications. After his graduate studies, and in collaboration with Nicolais, Ambrosio designed the first composite hip joint prostheses, implemented 3D printing for customized musco-skeletal tissue substrates, and developed novel biomaterials that enabled less invasive surgical techniques for improved hospital care. Over time, Ambrosio coordinated several major European Commission projects and was recognized by the Commission’s leadership as Member of the High Level Group on Key Enabling Technologies that included the Vice-President of the Commission. His service was highlighted through nominations to prestigious scientific societies such as European Society for Biomaterials, the International Union of Societies for Biomaterials Science and Engineering; and others. Ambrosio also served as the Director of CNR’s Department of Chemical and Materials S&T from 2011 to early 2017.
In 2013, the prominent careers of Nicolais and Ambrosio mutually intersected with AFOSR through an ambitious effort led by the Embassy of Italy in Washington, DC, that aimed to bridge Italian researchers with the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) basic research enterprise. The activity was led by the Embassy’s Scientific Attaché, Mr. Giulio Busulini, and the Assistant Defense Attaché, Colonel (Carabinieri) Giuseppe Battaglia. With the support of Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAECI) and Ministry of Defence (MOD), Busulini and Battaglia launched a cooperation roadmap that coincided with the AFOSR North American International Office (ION) strategy to build international basic science opportunities through U.S. interagency partnerships. The interagency initiative was led by AFOSR Program Officer, Dr. Sofi Bin-Salamon. Beginning with the 2013 AFOSR/Italy Technical Exchange Meeting spearheaded by AFOSR and the Embassy; Nicolais and Ambrosio engaged AFOSR to significantly impact the basic research relationship between the United States and Italy. With Nicolais’s support as the President of CNR, Ambrosio and Busulini would help build the foundation of an Italian national effort to open new collaborative avenues with AFOSR and its partners.
“It was an honor working with Dr. Sofi Bin-Salamon and AFOSR in such a challenging discovery and visionary mission.”
–Mr. Giulio Busulini
Bourgeoning science diplomacy
“A raindrop can ripple to affect great things. The associations we nurture often flow to unforeseen and surprising consequences. By building the relationships, the rest follows.”
–Dr. Sofi Bin-Salamon
Over time, Nicolais, Ambrosio and Busulini worked with Bin-Salamon to achieve multiple significant activities that included technical meetings, site visits, and other collaborative efforts. A major accomplishment was the planning of an international researcher exchange effort in 2015 coordinated by ION in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Australian Academy of Science, Australian National Fabrication Facility and the respective governments of Australia and Italy. The exchange of Australian and Italian researchers to laboratories in the United States was successfully executed in 2015 under the auspices of the respective U.S.-Australia and U.S.-Italy Joint Commission Meetings on S&T (JCM).
The National Research Council of Italy participated in the exchanges with a young researcher from the laboratory of Dr. Diletta Sciti at CNR’s Institute of S&T for Ceramics (ISTEC). Sciti was previously supported by AFOSR Program Officer, Dr. Ali Sayir. The basic science project directed by Sciti focused on studying the fracture toughness of ultra-high temperature ceramic materials for aerospace applications and involved the collaboration of the Italian Aerospace Research Centre (CIRA). As part of the JCM activities under the bilateral U.S.-Italy Science & Technology Agreement signed biennially between the U.S. Department of State and Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; MAECI funded a multi-year collaboration between Sciti’s group and the University of Colorado at Boulder. In addition, AFOSR’s support of Sciti’s scientific investigations and researcher exchange with the U.S. provided the necessary fundamental science groundwork for Sciti to successfully compete for a prestigious European Union (EU) consortium award titled, “Next Generation Ceramic Composite for Combustion Harsh Environments and Space” (C3HARME). The substantial multi-year consortium led by Sciti transitions the basic science supported by AFOSR to applied research with significant EU investment comprised of prominent research institutions and industrial partners in Italy, United Kingdom, Portugal, Ireland, Germany, and Spain for the design, manufacture, test and validation of a new class of out-performing ultra-high temperature ceramics toward use in severe aerospace environments.
Due to the collaboration between AFOSR, CNR and MAECI; the ISTEC-led European consortium has strong partnership to the U.S. S&T enterprise and provides a critical research infrastructure that U.S. principal investigators can leverage in pursuit of ground-breaking research. “Working with AFOSR Program Managers has been a great opportunity for the Italian researchers to open productive Science collaboration, but also a chance to build a fruitful programmatic government-to-government dialogue among Italy and the U.S.” says Busulini
Italy’s Ministry of Defence crucially helped secure the accomplishments that bolstered the Italian initiative to engage AFOSR and its interagency partners. The Embassy of Italy’s Defence Attaché staff enabled the necessary landscape that favored success beginning with the 2013 U.S.-Italy Defense S&T Dialogue and the AFOSR-Italy Technical Exchange. Furthermore, the MOD supported the continued basic science exchanges between AFOSR, CNR and MAECI that yielded the 2016 International Basic Research Infrastructure Meeting co-organized by AFOSR, Busulini and Assistant Defence Attaché, Lt. Colonel (AF) Alessio Grasso. Under the auspices of the U.S.-Italy, U.S.-Australia, and U.S.-Republic of South Africa (RSA) working groups of their respective JCMs on S&T, the infrastructure meeting brought together representatives from the participating countries to explore the possibilities of leveraging their respective research infrastructure investments to encourage cutting-edge basic science discoveries beneficial to the participating members. The meeting was attended and closed by Maj. General (AF) Luca Goretti (Defense Attaché, Embassy of Italy). Texas A & M University and Virginia Polytechnic and State University proactively initiated and effectively led technical meetings that included the robust participation of CNR, MAECI, CIRA, the Australian National Fabrication Facility, the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation; the MINTEK National Science Council of South Africa, as well as U.S. universities. The National Research Council of Italy, in collaboration with AFOSR, followed the technical exchanges with an interagency discussion in Italy that achieved a consensus Smart Sensing and Structures platform. With a common platform in hand, AFOSR with its domestic and international partners achieved significant milestones.
Following the success of the AFOSR-led international researcher exchange between the U.S., Australia and Italy, the AFOSR North American International Office under the leadership of Dr. Mark Maurice initiated the creation of the USAF international student research exchange program. Maurice’s effort directly resulted in the launch of the DOD’s sole basic science international student research exchange program in 2016 that supports AFOSR principal investigators by promoting international collaborations enabling vital scientific advances for the USAF. Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Research Council endorsed the formation of a Smart Sensing and Structures dialogue under the U.S. and Italy JCM. This exchange of ideas helped achieve a multilateral synergy on quantum sensing that directly benefits AFOSR. “The Platform on Smart Sensing and Structures enable not only bilateral engagement but it works to leverage a common research portfolio and funding scheme to better perform and accelerate the result and the multidisciplinary impact of the desirable outcome. This initiative has also been considered as a best practice in the European framework of bilateral S&T cooperation in the transatlantic 2017 review,” says Busulini.
Included in these efforts are the research investigations in Italy led by Dr. Valentina Benfenati at the CNR Institute of Organic Synthesis and Photoreactivity to shed light in brain microdomains. The basic science thrust is co-supported by the AFOSR Biophysics program and the National Research Council of Italy and includes the CNR Institute of Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials and the CNR Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems. Among the collaborative partners in the U.S. and Australia are the University of Vanderbilt, the University of Adelaide, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics, and the Australian National Fabrication Facility.
The partnership grows
“The collaboration with AFOSR led to a unique interdisciplinary, inter-sectoral and international research platform spanning from advanced materials to biophysics including infrastructure sharing among the United States, Italy, South Africa and Australia.”
–Prof. Luigi Ambrosio
These synergistic efforts later led to even more U.S.-Italy science and technology collaborations with AFOSR. Ambrosio continued the relationship with AFOSR by serving as the co-chair of the Working Group on Advanced Materials with Bin-Salamon under the U.S.-Italy JCM on S&T. This served as a springboard under the U.S.-Italy Science and Technology Agreement where U.S. and international organizations directly benefited. Among the many activities, the NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA GRC) created a robust collaboration with the Italian Aerospace Research Centre that leverage CIRA’s and GRC’s respective wind tunnels for aircraft icing research. The Australian National Fabrication Facility supported the researcher exchange between the National Research Council of Italy Institute of Nanostructured Materials and the University of Wollongong. Texas A & M University forged a strong collaboration with the MINTEK National Science Council of South Africa on high-temperature materials where South African National Science Council co-supported a research exchange with Texas A & M University. Virginia Polytechnic and State University leverages South African research infrastructure through a joint venture with the RSA National Science Council by using rare earth materials for wind turbine development.
Nicolais is currently serving as Chief Scientific Advisor of Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research and is glad to see Ambrosio continuing the relationship with AFOSR. Through the decades of the relationship between AFOSR and the science and technology community of Italy, the importance of continuing to build these relationships has remained a priority. Building upon one another’s capabilities and finding ways to create shared competencies has led to several joint projects and co-funding opportunities with AFOSR and Italy; primarily in support of sensing and life sciences. Through collaboration with the Embassy of Italy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Research Council of Italy, and the Italian Ministry of Defence; AFOSR and its partners effectively leverage Italy’s world-class researchers, the research investments of CNR’s €1 billion enterprise, and the €80 billion European Commission Horizon 2020 Program. Scientific opportunities for U.S. organizations range from applied mathematics, materials science, and physics; and includes research institutions at the CNR, universities, public-private partnerships, and government agencies. The AFOSR Biophysics program greatly benefits from the exceptional access to European research infrastructure provided by Italy for top researchers in academia and the Air Force Research Laboratory to discover leading-edge biophysical advances for human performance.
Nicolais never forgot and has appreciated that AFOSR took a chance on him over 30 years ago. He stressed the importance of AFOSR taking that calculated risk years ago to advance science and the mission, “The basic research is the prerequisite of any applied research. If a researcher is not aware of the most advanced knowledge in the field it is difficult that he can provide a breakthrough contribution to new technologies. Also often basic research can lead to advancement of knowledge in the field.”
It is clear that Halpin made a wise investment in Nicolais back in 1977, but more importantly, AFOSR has continued to develop and maintain solid relationships along the way that feed collaborative efforts in support of basic research for the Air Force and our nation.
ABOUT AFOSR: The Air Force Office of Scientific Research, located in Arlington, Virginia, continues to expand the horizon of scientific knowledge through its leadership and management of the Air Force’s basic research program. As a vital component of the Air Force Research Laboratory, AFOSR’s mission is to discover, shape and champion basic science that profoundly impacts the future Air Force. Through its international enterprise AFOSR supports the Air Force science and technology community by identifying global technological capabilities and accomplishments that can be applied to Air Force needs.