Materials face ultimate test in space

Apr 29, 2011

( -- Mark Hersam of Northwestern University will be more interested than most Americans when the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off for the last time Friday, April 29. Six little pieces of himself and his research team -- scientific samples each a square inch in size -- will be on board.

His carbon nanotube and graphene thin films will spend at least six months mounted on the outside of the to see if they degrade in the harsh environment of outer space or are stable. Radiation damage is a major issue with materials used in .

“Our samples must go into space to prove themselves,” said Hersam, a professor of materials science and engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. “This is the ultimate test. If the materials are resistant to radiation there, they could be used to dramatically improve the technology currently used in space, such as that found in satellites.”

The samples are part of NASA’s Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), a series of experiments investigating the effects of long-term exposure of various materials to the harsh space environment. The project evaluates the performance, stability and long-term survivability of materials and components planned for use by NASA and others.

Liam Pingree, a Northwestern alumnus and former graduate student of Hersam’s, secured a place on the shuttle for Hersam’s transparent conductive materials. “Is a single-walled carbon nanotube material more stable than a graphene sheet?” Pingree said. “I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that without putting the materials up into space.” He is a research engineer at Boeing Research & Technology.

Hersam has a second duplicate set of the samples -- “terrestrial controls” -- safely held in his lab. Once the first set returns from space, Hersam and his team will test the two sets and compare them.

“Ideally we want the space samples to perform as well as or better than our lab samples,” Hersam said. “It’s possible the space samples could be superior due to differences in atmospheric conditions.”

He also will be able to monitor from Earth the electrical resistance of one of the graphene sheet samples while it is in space. If the material degrades, its resistance will increase, Hersam said.

His lab specializes in producing exceptionally high purity samples of and graphene . Hersam and his research team have shown performance enhancement using these materials in (Earthly) applications ranging from high-frequency transistors for communication systems to transparent conductors, which are used in solar cells and displays. If the materials pass the outer space test, they could be used in similar applications in space.

“It’s very difficult to get experiments on the space shuttle so we are very excited and thank Liam for making it happen,” Hersam said. “The technology we have on Earth is considerably more advanced than what is used in space, due to the difference in radiation. The computers used on Earth, for example, are generations ahead of those used in space because modern terrestrial devices are not immune to the radiation found in space.”

Hersam’s colleague Peter Voorhees knows the feeling of having an experiment in space. Voorhees, the Frank C. Engelhart Professor of Science and Engineering, has had three coarsening experiments on the space station; the most recent samples returned last month on the shuttle Discovery.

There is only one more shuttle -- Atlantis -- slated to launch (June 28) to the International Space Station, ending the space shuttle program’s 30-year career. This means that Hersam’s samples will need to find a different way back to Earth.

Explore further: Researchers develop new storage cell for solar energy storage, nighttime conversion

Related Stories

Opening The Door To New Materials For Exploration

Oct 07, 2005

Scientists just got their space-bound luggage back after a four-year wait. On October 3, containers filled with experimental materials that might one day be used to build the vehicles that carry humans to Mars were opened ...

Will the U.S. continue to 'reach for the stars'?

Apr 28, 2011

With the space shuttle program winding down — Discovery returned from its final mission in March, Endeavor is scheduled for its last flight this Friday, and Atlantis should launch at the end of June — ...

Leonardo attached to Space Station

Mar 02, 2011

After a flawless launch last Thursday and a textbook docking on Saturday, the Space Shuttle today delivered the European-built Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module to the International Space Station.

Russia to launch orbital laboratories

Aug 14, 2006

Russian space officials say they will launch two orbital laboratories to conduct experiments involving zero gravity, materials in space and biotechnologies.

New Material to Be Tested on International Space Station

Sep 19, 2006

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) announced today it has delivered a suite of unique materials to NASA for testing on the International Space Station (ISS) sometime during the summer of 2007. The materials, ...

Recommended for you

Metal encapsulation optimizes chemical reactions

16 hours ago

The chemical industry consumes millions of tons of packing materials as catalytic sup- port media or adsorbents in fixed-bed reactors and heat storage systems. Fraunhofer researchers have developed a means of encapsulating ...

Fuel and chemicals from steel plant exhaust gases

17 hours ago

Carbon monoxide-rich exhaust gases from steel plants are only being reclaimed to a minor extent as power or heat. Fraunhofer researchers have developed a new recycling process for this materially unused carbon resource: They ...

Self-assembly of molecular Archimedean polyhedra

17 hours ago

Chemists truly went back to the drawing board to develop new X-shaped organic building blocks that can be linked together by metal ions to form an Archimedean cuboctahedron. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, the sc ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.