The Air Force Academy has always had the perfect backdrop for mad scientists.
Lasers, wind tunnels and bubbling chemistry labs are all part of the scenery at the academy, nationally renowned for its science and engineering programs.
Now the school also might have the perfect character for that set: Lt. Col. Joshua Kittle. He pulls the wings off butterflies to detect chemical weapons.
“You just take one of the wings,” Kittle explained, showing off the translucent wings of the insect.
The wings, it seems, are nearly as reliable as spectral analysis to show the presence of chemical weapons. It just takes a specialized light and the wings do the rest.
It’s all thanks to specialized structures within the wing that filter light differently in the presence of chemicals. And if Kittle can make it work, the butterfly wings could save lives on battlefields.
“This is basic research,” he said. “It’s still not ready to be fielded, but it’s close.”
Kittle’s work is part of a wide effort at the academy that puts the brains of the school’s 4,000 cadets to work solving real-world problems for the Air Force. The $38 million undergraduate research program has come up with new ideas for body armor, launched swarms of drones and helped combat rust in aging planes.
It’s the best-funded such program in America, and leaders hope to make more strides this year, including advances for Kittle’s butterfly work.
Most of the heavy lifting to test Kittle’s idea was carried out last year by cadets, and work continues this fall.
The wings have been used to detect chemicals similar to those used in mustard gas and the chemical weapon sarin.
Now, Kittle is hoping to come up with something better than butterfly wings that will allow him to find the presence of minuscule quantities of the chemicals.
“We can now get to very low parts per million to parts per billion,” he said.
Getting down to parts per trillion means making something that acts like the butterfly wing, but works better.
This year, cadets are working with silicon structures that simulate the translucent wing to see if they’ll do the job.
What makes the wing so attractive is not just that it detects chemicals. The wing is something that could be used rapidly and easily on the battlefield putting detection technology that would normally require a full chemistry lab into the hands of airmen on the battlefield.
Kittle didn’t start pulling wings from butterflies on a whim. Instead, the career Air Force chemist adapted something he spotted in a scientific paper a decade ago to fit a military mission.
Lt. Col. Don Rhymer said letting cadets and professors follow their curiosity is part of what makes the academy’s research arm successful.
“The academy never wants to get in the game of directed research,” said Rhymer, the school’s associate dean of research.
Kittle and his cadet team this year will try to refine their chemical detection tools. He knows what the battlefield will require.
“We certainly want small, cheap and robust,” he said.