The room looks straight out of a "Batman" set, with nasty-looking, foot-long spikes projecting from the walls as if to close in on the dynamic duo. But no danger, for the spikes are made of foam, and in any case Batman and Robin could never get clearance to visit the Army's Harry Diamond Laboratories, in whose bowels the room is located.
The room bristling with foam spikes is the anechoic chamber, the laboratory bailiwick of scientist Robert K. Dahlstrom. He uses it to test antennae for missiles and artillery shells, and the foam absorbs microwaves to minimize interference.
Dahlstrom is one of about 1,100 people, half of them scientists or engineers, who work in the laboratories, experimenting with everything from fluidics to the effects of a nuclear blast. Set on a 137-acre campus in Adelphi, Md., the labs normally are closed to visitors but opened for a day last week to celebrate their 1,000th patent.
Much of the research is top secret--including the work that led to the 1,000th patent, on something called an Acousto-Optic Time Integrating Correlator. Some rooms are checked from time to time for bugs--listening devices.
The labs were named for Harry Diamond, a Russian-born scientist who in 1944 invented the proximity fuze for artillery shells with the help of Wilbur Hinman. Placed in the nose of a warhead and sending and receiving electronic signals, the fuze determines the relationship of the warhead to a target, then detonates the warhead at a predetermined distance from the target. Army spokesmen say it was one of the most important military breakthroughs of World War II.
Diamond Laboratories gets $118 million a year from all the armed services combined, of which more than half goes out in contracts to industry, and its bread and butter is still military-related research. But many experiments have practical benefits for consumers.
For example, scientists at the labs in the late 1950s and early 1960s pioneered the study of fluidics, a technology to generate power using streams of fluid or gas. Many windshield washers and lawn sprinklers now use fluidics to sweep water across an area without using mechanical moving parts. The absence of moving parts minimizes wear and tear on equipment and makes it very reliable.
Scientists at the labs have tinkered with fluidics technology in many applications, everything from artificial-heart pumps to automatic mail sorters. The gyroscope on new M1 tanks uses fluidics to keep the turret stable, an improvement over gyroscopes that used a weak electrical field. James W. Joyce, a fluidics expert, said that with the old gyroscopes a nearby Jeep radio on rare occasions could start a tank turret moving--disconcerting for those nearby.
Joyce pointed to a new fluidic mud pulser that can be used in offshore oil drilling to send information automatically from the drill bit to the ship 15,000 feet away. He said a fluidic thermometer is being developed to read temperatures of more than 2,700 degrees Celsius, such as the molten core of a nuclear reactor.
The Diamond Labs also pioneered a process in the 1950s for mass-producing integrated chips, opening the way for the revolution in electronics miniaturization. Work continues in the labs on military uses for the tiny chips.
One problem the labs are facing is that salaries for scientists and engineers, running from about $17,000 to $58,000, are not always competitive with private industry. The result has been a trickle of talent away from the labs. "It's not a brain drain--there's no crisis--but people are leaving," said Ilene K. Semiatin, speaking for the labs.
The attractions of working in the labs are the freedom to experiment with ideas even when there may not be a quick pay-back, the scientists said. Moreover, in areas such as fluidics, the labs are at the cutting edge of the field and offer the chance for research in various applications.
"One day we're stabilizing tanks; the next we're building blood pumps," Joyce said of his work in fluidics.
The labs recruit college students for summer internships and for permanent jobs afterward. Semiatin said the labs' association with the Army does not appear to dull the attraction.
The scientists, most in the range of GS7 to 13, say a collegial spirit makes work in the Diamond Labs particularly rewarding. "Sentimentality keeps a lot of people here," Semiatin said.
Although some defense-related spending is under attack at a time of cuts in social funding, these scientists strongly resent any implication of extravagance or waste in their research.
"I'm sure most people think all federal workers spend their days with their feet propped up on their desk earning fantastic dollars," Joyce said. "I think the fact that we've earned 1,000 patents shows that's not true."
That is not to say the scientists don't have fun with their research. Mary S. Tobin, who is studying ways lasers might be used to allow the Army to see through fog or smoke, tested many gases for use in a laser. She even tried the vapor from scotch and bourbon.
"Alcohol doesn't work very well, unfortunately," she laughed. "Methyl alcohol works better, but you can't drink it."