Industry, universities help NASA
get nanotechnology off the ground

WASHINGTON — Federal researchers want the wings of aircraft to lose the flaps, gain a whole lot of flexibility and act more like bird wings — and they’re using nanotechnology to achieve their goal.

That and other objectives are behind NASA’s announcement this month that it would work with seven universities to establish five University Research, Engineering and Technology Institutes — with three of them focused on nanotechnology. All of the individual projects will have industry as well as university support, said Meyya Meyyappan, nanotechnology project manager at the NASA Ames Research Center.

NASA is pushing nanotech research by necessity. “When you think about just the cost per pound of getting things into orbit or taking things into space, it becomes necessary to consider self-healing, self-actuating systems,” said Michael Reischman, director of the university programs office of aerospace technology at the agency.

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Studying how nature adapts to changes in the environment is enlightening to space researchers “because in space travel, or even in orbit, the amount of real intelligence a system has about how to adapt to different variations in its environment is very important.”

The new NASA-university partnerships, he said, will give the agency much-needed research assistance in fields like nanotechnology. The agency has let its connections to universities decline over the years, he said, and the new institutes represent NASA’s return to university partnerships.

The three nanotechnology related institutes will be with: the University of California, Los Angeles, for fusion of bio nano and information technologies; Princeton and Texas A&M universities for bionanotechnology materials and structures for aerospace vehicles; and Purdue University for nanoelectronics and computing.

Each of the institutes has an initial five-year lifespan, with a maximum duration of 10 years. The individual institutes are receiving from NASA $3 million a year.

The Princeton and Texas A&M partnership particularly excites Mia Siochi, the team leader for the bionanomaterials development team at the NASA Langley Research Center. Siochi’s team of 20 researchers spend their days toiling over how to make aircraft wings more adaptable and fluid — more like bird wings — and the Princeton and Texas A&M research will help accelerate the group’s work.

“We want to use carbon nanotubes to build a stronger load-bearing structure that might have other properties like sensing,” she said. “There is a vision for the future aircraft, called Eagle Vision, that mimics bird flight. How do you get rid of flaps and still have wings that are maneuverable? You need to sense and respond to the environment. Can we use carbon nanotubes in structures so you have stronger, lighter material, and it can also change its shape as the environment requires?”

The Texas A&M people, she said, will focus on carbon nanotube research, while the Princeton scientists will leverage their expertise in biomimetics and nanotechnology. Biomimetics research uses biological systems as inspirations for material design. The Princeton team has experience studying seashells, remarkable structures that are the products of cells arranging microscopic amounts of materials into hard material.

The Princeton team has figured out how to clone gene sequences that influence the shape of silicon in seashells, giving researchers the power to create shells in different shapes. What NASA wants to know, she said, is whether they can use the procedure to make adaptable aircraft wings.

The Purdue University team will wrestle with computing and nanotechnology issues, which are key to NASA’s future, Meyyappan said.

“If one were to look at an autonomous space vehicle, a thinking spacecraft, you need an enormous amount of computing power, but it can’t be the size of a Cray Computer,” he said. “You’re looking at an order of magnitude of computing power compared to today, but in a small package.”

Working in tandem with NASA scientists, the Purdue center will explore novel electronic approaches for computing, data storage and memory.

Meyyappan said it costs about $10,000 a pound to send material to the space station; to go to Mars, it costs about $100,000 a pound. Size and weight have long been central to NASA’s research agenda, and so nanotechnology is a NASA priority, he said.

Meyyappan, a nanotechnology pioneer within the federal government, said that all of the university research will be oriented toward NASA’s space mission, but the potential for commercialization is also important to the agency.

“Let’s say someone is working on carbon nanotubes,” he said. “If there is a commercial application, then they have the rights and they can work with the university, through the system, and try to license it. The commercial benefits will be there, and I think NASA will let them exploit it to their advantage.”

The first meeting of the new institutes is expected to occur this summer, and the research agendas and work will follow immediately, Meyyappan said.


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