Generating a constant source of energy to power devices remains a top priority for Soldiers in the field. U.S. Army research on transforming native, ubiquitous vegetation into a reliable, small-scale fuel source could help reduce the volume of energy supplies Soldiers have to carry, such as batteries and electric generators.
“Every pound of supplies that has to be delivered is an additional burden and risk,” said journeyman fellow Marcus Benyamin. “If we can provide clean water and energy more efficiently than the way we currently do now, we’ve reduced the risk to the Soldier just by lightening that logistical load.”
An adventurer of the lab, Benyamin describes his time he spent conducting research at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s U.S. Army Research Laboratory as nothing short of breathtaking.
“I’m surrounded by researchers who have worked for decades and possess a bounty of technical knowledge,” Benyamin said. “Working [here] is like being a kid in a candy store.”
Benyamin graduated with a bachelor of science in chemical and biomolecular engineering, as well as mathematics, at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2017. Now, he works on biomass-to-energy research in the lab’s Sensors and Electrons Directorate.
His projects focus on using microorganisms, which break down food waste and indigenous vegetation and convert them into energy. Specifically, Benyamin employs special fungi to break down the plant material into its basic chemical components and then engineers certain types of bacteria to convert those components into the desired chemicals for energy production.
“In a normal consortium, you can have thousands of different organisms in any given natural process,” Benyamin said. “Right now, we have two to three, but we’re hoping to add more.”
Benyamin first learned about the Army Research Laboratory in high school when he read a news report on liquid body armor. Intrigued by the story, he entered the Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program, or SEAP, in 2011, and investigated fuel cells under the mentorship of Army physicist Dr. David Mackie in the Biotechnology Branch.
Since then, he has received guidance from various other mentors at the lab as he’s returned each year under SEAP and later under the College Qualified Leaders program.
According to Benyamin, what he obtained from his supervisors was more than just lab protocol.
“My first mentor, Dave, taught me how to think freely and solve experimental problems as they came up,” Benyamin said. “My second mentor, Justin Jahnke, helped me with both my research and my career, instilling organization, discipline and the philosophy of engineering. And finally, my current mentor, Matt Perisin, helps me conceptualize what I’m doing and keeps me focused and on track, even when I have a tendency to chase down every little detail. They’ve pushed me to every success I’ve had in research and walked me through every setback. I’m incredibly grateful for their years of guidance.”
Benyamin also mentioned his gratitude for the collaborative culture at the laboratory and how the flexibility of the journeyman fellowship has allowed him to explore his field and try new things.
“As an organization, I appreciate ARL most for its long-term investment in people, for its culture of cooperation and for its willingness to accept risk,” Benyamin said.
Looking forward, Benyamin envisions himself pursuing a master’s degree or a doctorate, but insisted he would return to the lab. He reflected how this organization had consumed so much his life that he could never separate his development from it.
“This place saw me grow up,” Benyamin said. “I would not be the researcher I am today, the engineer I am today, or the person I am today without ARL, without these programs, or without these people behind them.”