Penn team to design improved emergency tents with NSF grant

When disaster strikes and people are displaced, something as simple as a tarp can mean the difference between life and death. Setting up temporary shelters is often among the first priorities of relief agencies, and what the shelters are made of is of great importance. 

Materials science researchers at Penn have received a five-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop multifunctional coatings for emergency tents, enabling them to manage water in both drought and flood conditions, prevent the spread of bacteria, and help channel sunlight to solar panels. These disparate capabilities all stem from fundamental research on how materials behave on the nanoscale, where minute surface details can produce large-scale effects.

The grant is part of the NSF’s Partnerships in International Research and Education, or PIRE, program, which seeks to foster global collaborations on topics of societal importance.

The Penn team features dozens of faculty members and students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS), and the Perelman School of Medicine. It is being led by Russell Composto, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at SEAS. Zahra Fakhraai, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at SAS, Daeyeon Lee, an associate professor in SEAS’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Kristin Field, director of programs at the Nano/Bio Interface Center, are also a part of the leadership team.

Their project, “Research and Education in Active Coatings Technologies for the Human Habitat,” is principally a collaboration with GIANT, a public-private research partnership based in Grenoble, France, which has received complementary funding from French national science agencies. Penn will also collaborate with researchers at Alabama State University, Villanova, and Bryn Mawr.

“We have a longstanding relationship for international research experience and student exchange with GIANT,” Composto says, “This grant is going to expand this relationship and organize it around three coating technologies: water management, infection control, and energy collection and storage.”

The ultimate goal for the PIRE project is a prototype of an emergency tent that exhibits all three surface properties.

“The idea is to have energy harvesting layers, water-collecting layers, and antibiotic layers,” Fakhraai says. “We can make them transparent and porous so they can stack them in different orders depending on what the needs are. The most challenging part will be to make it so that their properties don't interfere.”

Beyond exchanging researchers and sharing nanoscale tools, the partnership will develop students’ teaching and presentation skills through Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning. In addition, students will receive mentoring and industrial internship opportunities through a partnership with Solvay, a multinational company with facilities near Penn and Grenoble, France.

“We’re training them for science in an international environment,” Field says.

Temporary shelter