Meet the Scientist: Dr. Richard Vaia

Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, research and development.  The greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time.  If you have someone you’d like AWS to highlight for this segment, email Jessica L. Tozer at

(Photo provided by Dr. Richard Vaia/Released)

(Photo provided by Dr. Richard Vaia/Released)

WHO: Dr. Richard Vaia. Went to school at Cornell University.  Started his career in the U.S. Air Force ROTC.  Luckily, the Air Force supported his academic endeavors, and he was fortunate enough to get an educational delay, which allowed him to get his PhD. Aim high, indeed.

TITLE: Technology Director of the Functional Materials Division at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Basically, he’s responsible for the development of the technical program related to functional materials and their use in Air Force systems.

MISSION: His research team, which supports some of the activities in the broader Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, specifically focuses on developing nanostructured hybrids that combine polymers and inorganics to support various military missions.

What’s your role in researching and developing nanomaterials?

“In my division roll, nanomaterials are pervasive throughout most of what is done in the functional materials division.  Whether it’s work we do for survivability, new sensors, new ISR platforms, new products for human performance monitoring, or novel soft flexible electronic technologies.  So, in essence, nano-science  is a basis for what current advanced materials are.  They’re almost synonymous.”

What are “hairy nanoparticles” and what to you hope they will achieve?

Mmmm.  Looks deliciously analogous.  (U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

Mmmm. Looks deliciously analogous. (U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

“Hairy particles are one example of those types of materials [inorganic hybrid materials].  My group works in a variety of areas, but the fundamental work is in the area of these hybrids.  If you think of a tennis ball, for example, and you put cooked spaghetti on the surface of it, that’s a hairy nanoparticle.  So the goal of the work that we’re doing is trying to figure out what is the size, density, and length of that spaghetti that’s on the tennis ball.”

“These features determine how the hairy nanoparticles interact with each other.  So the processibility and properties of these materials are all about the architecture and the structure of this cooked spaghetti on the surface; how much you have on there, how big it is, how rigid it is, if it’s al dente or overcooked.    So the fundamental work is trying to understand those correlations and how you build this polymer corona, or canopy.”

“They’re called hairy nanoparticles because they look like hairs stuck to the surface.  Scientifically they’re called polymer-grafter nanoparticles, but hairy nanoparticles sounds better because you can make jokes about going bald, or having too much hair, or getting a punk spike. It’s descriptive of the structure of molecules that are on the surface.”

I personally prefer the term “hairy nanoparticles”.  In your own words, what is it about these nanomaterials that makes them so significant?

“What these concepts allow  is to  build  materials from the nano and atomic level up.  This is in contrast to how a lot of work has been done in the past, such as blending separate nanoparticles with the plastic, by starting with two separate powders and trying very hard to mix them together at the nanoscopic level.  The advantage of doing it from the bottom up is you can access new compositions, or higher nanoparticle fractions, potentially discovering different morphologies or arrangements.  All of this leads to expanding the property space that’s available; how these materials will perform and hence how we can use them.”

How would you use these nanomaterials to aid the military or help with military missions?

“As with all materials, they’re definitely enablers to components and systems.  A nano-device in the warfighter’s hand isn’t really going to do much – it would be too small.  A nanomaterial makes what they have better, is sort of like the Nano Inside.  A lot of the work that we do is to  make what we have today better, or turn science fiction into science fact by developing and integrated new materials.”

Can you give me an example of that?

“One of the specific areas that we’re doing a lot of work on today is being able to create Band-Aids that will measure your blood or sweat chemistry so you have a direct monitor of the cognitive ability of the warfighter.  You can then determine when they need a break, or if you need to change how you’re delivering information to them for training or decision-making purposes. These new nanomaterials enable these devices and result in future  capabilities.”

“What we would like to do in the future is to actually measure chemicals in your blood, like dopamine, or other small biochemicals.  Changes in these chemicals are actually pre-cursors to physiological changes; you can be predictive on human performance.”

“For the hairy nanoparticles, we’ve done a lot of work using them as dielectrics to miniaturize pulse power subsystems.  For example,  for high power microwave sources, or  other types of directed energy sources, these subsystems are the magic behind the curtain.  They control the flow and condition of the electrical power but are large and heavy and limiting to placing these sources on aircraft.”

Oh, and you’re trying to shrink that!

“Trying to shrink that, and make it lighter, make it more efficient. That’s one application we’re evaluating these hairy nanoparticles for.”

What do you think is the most impressive or beneficial thing about your research and why?

“I think what we can do in this area is a direct reflection of the unique place that the Air Force Research Lab sits in the development cycle of new technology, because it allows us to do fundamental work but through the lens of solving critical issues for high value capabilities. Trying to understand at the two, three, four nanometer level how to put these polymers and inorganics together, and how this leads to new properties, are very fundamental questions.”

“We do this in an environment where we understand what the Air Force needs, and what technology is needed for future capabilities.  This allows us to focus on the key fundamentals, not just to be able to understand them , but to assess if this is really a useful route to go to solve Air Force problems.  If they are not, then we can help the community quickly focus in a different direction that might be of greater benifet to the Air Force.”

Nanomaterials are all the rage these days. Are you working on any other projects right now?

“Well, we have other projects outside of the hairy nanoparticles that also involve organic/inorganic hybrids.  One of the areas we’re looking at is plasmonics.  You may have run across nanotechnology introductory literature that talks about the color changes of  gold nanoparticles when they get really small.”

“In some stained glass windows, especially in Europe from the middle ages, the deep reds in the glasses are because the sands that were used had a little bit of gold in them.  Through the processing they created gold nanoparticles in the glass which is what gave it the color.”

Look at all that red.  Courtesy of the middle ages and nanoparticles.  Interior of Saint Denis, stained glass at Amiens Cathedral, window at Chartres, window of the crucifixion at Chartres, rose window at Saint Denis. (Photo courtesy Mark Bussell/Providence Pictures)

Look at all that red. Courtesy of the middle ages and nanoparticles. Interior of Saint Denis, stained glass at Amiens Cathedral, window at Chartres, window of the crucifixion at Chartres, rose window at Saint Denis.
(Photo courtesy Mark Bussell/Providence Pictures)

“It is the classic example of nanotechnology – size leading to new properties.  I can take gold and start chiseling away, and when I only have a few thousand atoms left, all of a sudden the properties change. They keep changing with size until I get a single atom of gold.  That size/scale range is the essence of nano.  Like the hairy nanoparticles, we work to understand how to control the optical & plasmonic properties of these nanoparticles and how to integrate them into sensors.”

“Another area that we do a lot of work in is mechanically adaptive materials. So, if you have a piece of plastic and it just sits on the table, it’s static, right?  Mechanically adaptive materials move or change its shape if I shine light on it or change its temperature.  The transduction or the change of the light or heat or temperature into mechanical motion occurs at the nano or molecular level. Developing ways to optimize this process is core to our current work.”

If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

“You realize that’s the hardest question you have on here?”

That’s what everybody says!

“I thought of two things.  One, I think it would be very intriguing to be in London when the Royal Society was just starting to have discussions that resulted in formulating what we consider  science today.  How we talk about science, what we consider scientific versus metaphysics.  A lot of those discussions occurred when the Royal Society was founded back in the 1700s.  I just think it would be fun to sit and listen.  It’s like a micro-chasm of how society changed and where we are at now  You could almost see how things changed.  Two, going forward, I would just love to be a fly on the wall and see what happens to my kids when they’re sixty and understand their life after I’ve gone on.”

Thanks to Dr. Richard Vaia for contributing to this article, and for his contributions to the science and technological communities.


Jessica L. Tozer is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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