Novel nanomaterials developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were sent into orbit on November 16 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis.
The project, funded by the U.S. Air Force Multi University Research Initiative (MURI), seeks to test the performance of the new nanocomposites in orbit. Space Shuttle Atlantis carried the samples to the International Space Station (ISS). The materials will then be mounted to the station’s outer hull in a Passive Experiment Carrier (PEC), and exposed to the rigors of space.
Nanocomposites “Go the Distance” in Space
Rensselaer professors Linda Schadler, of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Thierry Blanchet, of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, worked with a team of researchers from the University of Florida to develop two different types of experimental nanomaterials. The MURI project and the University of Florida research team are led by Rensselaer alumnus W. Greg Sawyer ’99, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Rensselaer and is now the N. C. Ebaugh Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida. Blanchet was Sawyer’s doctoral adviser.
The first new material is a wear-resistant, low-friction nanocomposite, created by mixing nanoscale alumina particles with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which is known commercially as Teflon. Schadler and her research group introduced different fluorine-coated nanoparticles into conventional PTFE. The small amount of additive caused the wear rate of the PTFE to drop by four orders of magnitude, without affecting the PTFE’s coefficient of friction. The end result is a stronger, more durable PTFE that is almost as nonstick and slippery as untreated PTFE.
“We’re very excited to have this experiment installed in the ISS, and to see how the new material performs in space,” Schadler said. “In a laboratory setting, the wear rate of the material is four orders of magnitude lower than pure PTFE, which means it is considerably more resistant to wear and tear. Just as important, these advances don’t increase the material’s coefficient of friction, which means the increase in durability won’t come at the expense of creating extra friction.”