Q&A: Enhancing defense readiness with renewable energy and sensor materials

December 14, 2023

By Sarah Small

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. Penn State has been selected by the Department of Defense (DoD) as a partner for two of the four newly created DoD research centers of excellence. The DoD awarded a total of $40 million to establish the four centers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Minority-serving Institutions (MI), which will conduct research over a five-year period in technology areas deemed critical by the DoD.  

Center of Excellence for Integrated Renewable Energy and Energy Storage, led by Florida International University 

  • Penn State principal investigator (PI): Chris Rahn, J. Lee Everett Professor of Mechanical Engineering 
  • Penn State co-PIs: Clive Randall, professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Materials Research Institute, and Enrique Gomez, professor of chemical engineering and interim associate dean for equity and inclusion 

Research and Education Program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-serving Institutions: Integrated Sensing and Cyber, led by Virginia Tech 

  • Penn State PI: Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Evan Pugh Professor, Steward S. Flaschen Professor of Ceramic Science and Engineering and professor of electrical engineering 
  • Penn State Co-PIs: Mehdi Kiani, associate professor of electrical engineering, Tom Jackson, Robert E. Kirby Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering, Doug Werner, John L. and Genevieve H. McCain Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Andrea Arguelles, assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics and of acoustics 

Rahn and Trolier-McKinstry discussed with Penn State News Penn State’s role in the centers and the research they plan to conduct. 

Q: What is the focus of the center for excellence on which you are the Penn State PI? What are the research goals for the next five years? 

Rahn: We will be focused on providing solutions that improve DoD's operational readiness through modern renewable energy generation systems, seamlessly integrated with energy storage. The DoD has unique requirements in both energy storage and generation, and we plan to provide new energy solutions that can reduce fuel consumption, improve efficiency and enhance mobility using US-based materials and manufacturing.  

Trolier-McKinstry: Sensors are essential to many different types of surveillance systems and to combat readiness. They require a method of physical detection, detection circuitry, power, packaging and alert-communication capability. Component technologies have advanced with regard to reliability, dependability, signal-to-noise ratio enhancements and reduced power consumption. We are building on these component advancements and developing integrated sensing and cyber in a single wide-band system that can operate at the intersection of cyberspace, electronic warfare, radar and communications in highly contested — or noisy environments. This will require basic research advancements in various types of materials for sensors, detection methods and sensor fusion, and cyber protection and situational awareness. We also propose to develop a unique authentication method based on ultra-low frequency mechanical transmitters which can be small in size. 

Q: What specifically is Penn State’s role? How will you collaborate with the other institution?  

Rahn: At Penn State, we will be developing energy storage systems that go beyond lithium and renewable energy generation using organic photovoltaics. I am very excited about working with FIU collaborators and Clive Randall on cold sintered cathodes for zinc-based batteries that are safe and high energy density. Enrique Gomez will be working with the FIU team to develop organic photovoltaics. We will also be working closely with FIU to develop new collaborations between faculty and graduate students with both institutions and the Army Research Lab. We will be working hard to recruit and retain underrepresented STEM students to help produce the future DoD workforce. 

Trolier-McKinstry: For the Center of Excellence in Integrated Sensing and Cyber Applications (CEISCA) at Penn State, we will be developing new sensor and antenna materials and integrating them into remote sensing and cyber physical systems. Sensors to be developed include acoustic, magnetic, infrared and seismic monitors. The goal is to develop systems that handle data from disparate sources, while securely communicating wirelessly in a power-efficient manner. Ultimately, these systems are intended to allow seamless data analysis and good decision making. CEISCA faculty from Virginia Tech and Penn State will work closely with the Army Research Laboratory to provide training opportunities for students. 

Q: How do these centers and the research that will be conducted at Penn State tie into the DoD’s goals of “expanding HBCU’s and MI’s capacity to participate in DoD research programs and activities” and in increasing the number of graduates in STEM fields?   

Rahn: Enrique Gomez will be leading the education and outreach efforts at Penn State and will work closely with FIU. We plan to form a fellows program that provides graduate and undergraduate students with unique research and internship opportunities. Faculty and students will collaborate with Army Research Lab researchers, including them on graduate student committees. We will be reaching out to underrepresented K-12 students in the Miami area with engineering expos and interactive lessons. 

Trolier-McKinstry: It is essential to increase the diversity of the nation’s STEM workforce, including the DoD research programs. One major emphasis area of the CEISCA center is training of students in information technology. We will focus on multidisciplinary training of the graduate students so that students matriculate already knowing how to work on systems-level projects. We will also run educational workshops at professional conferences.


Share this story:

facebook linked in twitter email


College of Engineering Media Relations