Occupying just 207 acres and sandwiched between residential communities in Adelphi, the U.S. Army Adelphi Laboratory Center (ALC) is relatively small in comparison to other U.S. Army garrisons.
Its reach and impact, however, are enormous. Just ask any soldier who is counting on reliable batteries, protective clothing and sophisticated gadgetry to complete a mission, or in the worst case scenario, just stay alive.
The ALC dates back to 1973, when the Harry Diamond Laboratories moved from northwest Washington, D.C., to the Adelphi location. A later consolidation of seven corporate Army laboratories in October 1992 resulted in activation of the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), the ALC’s largest tenant.
Now comprising 37 buildings containing more than 1.1 million square feet of research and laboratory space, maintenance and fabrication shops, administrative complexes and utility plants, the ALC is an impressive hybrid campus best described as a little bit Fort Meade, a little bit Applied Physics Lab.
Its 1,200 mostly civilian employees make up an elite workforce, with 180 of those personnel — fully 15% — having earned doctorate degrees in scientific and engineering fields.
Despite a major difference in disciplines, they all have the same focus.
“The people here care passionately about what they do and know that they are here for the American soldier,” said ALC Spokesperson James Lapaglia.
In fact, he added, many of these personnel have prior military experience and know firsthand how important their mission is.
The bulk of employees at ALC work for the Army Research Laboratory, but operations aren’t limited to Adelphi.
According to ARL Spokesperson Joyce Brayboy, additional operations and workforces are located at Aberdeen Proving Ground and as far away as Orlando, Fla., White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio and Langley Research Center in Virginia.
“ARL does fundamental research for innovations that help the soldiers,” she explained, “things that will give them an edge and protect them or enhance their situational awareness on the battlefield.”
One of the ARL’s current research programs focuses on making lithium ion batteries more efficient.
“The big breakthrough is that we’ve been able to increase the voltage in a single-cell battery up to 5 volts,” noted Lapaglia. “That’s 30% more efficient than state-of-the-art batteries now on the market.”
For the soldier who’s using lots of small devices, that means longer periods between battery changes and fewer batteries to carry in the field.
“There’s obviously a commercial interest in this product as well,” Lapaglia said, which will be handled through the ARL’s Technology Transfer Office when the time is right.
Other improvements ARL has been working on include a liquid body armor application that could strengthens flak vests, helmets and other uniform items to protect against knives and bayonets, shrapnel and projectiles.
Researchers are also working on a flexible video display that can be mounted in vehicles or worn on the arm, as well as robotic vehicles with autonomous navigation capabilities that can search for survivors in rubble or conduct surveillance in dangerous environments.
“Our goal is to see how small we can make a robotic vehicle,” said Brayboy. “The Holy Grail would be a fruit fly-sized application that could explore compact spaces or stay unnoticed on intelligence gathering missions.”
“There’s a direct connection to the soldier by what we do here,” Lapaglia added. “Projects that ARL has worked on have gone very quickly and directly to the soldier.”
Situated as it is amid residential communities, the ALC has worked to enhance its community relations role in recent years.
“It’s important because we can collaborate on security issues and partner on community issues,” Lapaglia said.
For instance, when they learned that local residents were still displeased over the removal of a bus stop at the entrance to the installation 10 years ago, ALC officials worked to get a new bus stop established. “It was a win/win that gave our workers an option to commute using public transportation,” Lapaglia said. “We saw the value in it.”
When it comes to relationships with local business organizations, however, military organizations and government agencies have a fundamentally different outlook on membership than typical commercial members.
“We don’t need to grow our business, but we do need service providers and contract bidders,” Lapaglia said.
When two independent sources told him ALC needed to join the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber (BWCC), and one of those sources happened to be the Fort Meade Public Affairs Officer, Lapaglia considered it an omen.
“We’ve learned that it’s easy to attend mixers and hear sales pitches, and I find a new relation every time I go to an event,” he said. “Walt [Townshend] is so committed and he knows everybody, so that relationship continues to pay off for us.”
In fact, Townshend, who serves as president and CEO of the BWCC, even recommended a lead when the ALC began seeking bids to manage its employee-run café.
“If I need to know who offers a service, it only takes an e-mail to [the BWCC] and I have a bunch of leads to go on,” Lapaglia said.
Aside from its own research, the ARL also uses grant funding and cooperative research agreements to maximize the benefits it develops for soldiers.
In April the ARL Enterprise for Multiscale Modeling of Materials announced the award of $90 million to the Johns Hopkins University to develop new materials designed to protect soldiers in extreme dynamic environments.
ARL also awarded up to $20.9 million to an alliance led by the University of Utah to develop multiscale modeling techniques needed to design new materials for lighter-weight, more energy-efficient electronic devices and batteries.
“We’re basically looking at how we can make materials work better,” Brayboy explained, “things like helmets and batteries and other standard equipment.”
The cooperative agreements also help by introducing a different perspective.
“The Army has obvious needs,” she said, “but the civilian researcher frequently has different needs and considers other applications. When you add these three elements, you can get some phenomenal results.”