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Developing New Materials With Space Science 62

Posted by Soulskill
from the think-outside-the-gravity-well dept.
Scientists at the European Space Agency are using techniques inspired by their experience with outer space to make new and better products here on Earth. Certain compounds and alloys which are not normally viable can be made in different ways once forces such as gravity are removed from the equation. From BBC News: "The near absence of gravity (microgravity) has a profound influence on the way molten metals come together to form intermetallics and 'standard' alloys. With no 'up' and 'down' in the space environment, a melt doesn't rise and sink as it would at the planet's surface and that means solidification can turn out very differently. 'Gravity induces a lot of segregation of the elements,' explains IMPRESS scientist Dr Guillaume Reinhart. 'For instance, tantalum and niobium are heavy atoms and in doing the solidification process on the ground, they will segregate in different places and produce a very heterogeneous material. If you do this in microgravity, you obtain a very homogenous material because you prevent separation; and you have a much more efficient material, mechanically.'"
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Developing New Materials With Space Science

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  • IMPRESS? (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by Eudial (590661)
    Maybe I'm getting old, but IMPRESS sounds a wee bit too close to IPCRESS [wikipedia.org] for comfort.
  • by cheesethegreat (132893) on Sunday May 11, 2008 @01:39PM (#23370112)
    This is exactly what we need to jump-start serious commercial investment from companies like Dow Chemicals in space exploration. They'll never give more than token amounts to a project which is for the "betterment of mankind and improvement of human knowledge".

    But...if they think that they can make products superior to their competitors (or even better, products which are unique) then you can bet they'll be very interested in setting up orbital refineries and finding economical ways of doing it.

    This is the first really hopeful news about a continued human presence in space that I've heard in quite some time (Virgin's space gimmicks notwithstanding).
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by KGIII (973947)
      I think that, in the minds of your average person, the "conquest of space" was completed back in the late 1960's and now most view it as a drain on the budget and a waste of resources better used elsewhere. Unfortunately this mindset is also present in the c-levels that make such policy decisions.

      *sighs* Yet another case of chicken and the egg... If a company were to successfully profit from space, development in space, or research then most companies, such as your aforementioned Dow, would be all over t
    • by Tablizer (95088)
      if they think that they can make products superior to their competitors ... they'll be very interested in setting up orbital refineries and finding economical ways of doing it.

      Hopefully they will finally make use of that money-sucking IIS...I mean ISS space station.
         
    • Scientists at the European Space Agency are using techniques inspired by their experience with outer space.

      And this is why companies should understand that science projects that are for the betterment of mankind and for the improvement of human knowledge are long term investments.

      The problem is that the goal of corporations is to make a lot of profit in the short term. Rare are the corporations that are planning their growth in the long term. They plan for the coming years, not the coming 25 years.

      After all, where could useless theoritical research from imbeciles that live in their heads like James Clerk M

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by vandelais (164490)
      Exactly. Pure science will always have its backers, but if you can convince politicians by connecting the dots between pure science and applied science you can convince a few more to lead. Stuff like this is only an earmark or two away from tenability.

      Even if you can make a hypothesis that connects pure science to applied science ONLY IN THEORY, that can be the leash tug that results in real advancement.
    • by DiEx-15 (959602)
      I concur. It is about time private companies start picking up the slack that NASA has. I am sure there are ways that companies can make their own methods and techniques to explore space. This is in addition to the money that can be made by advancing science and technology.

      What I feel is going on is that since there is no space race anymore, John and Susie Q Public have little interest in space anymore. Never mind the fact that one day we have to consider getting off of Earth. Space is a new frontier and
    • What about the expense? It's still insanely expensive to push pounds into space and bring them back. Until national governments absorb more of the R&D to get us to the point of cheap space travel, Corporate America will not follow. Spare me the Ron Paul rhetoric. If Dow saw profit in it, they would have done so by now. This is not news. We've known this for decades.
      • by Grishnakh (216268)
        Sorry, I'm going to have to inject some Ron Paul rhetoric in here.

        National governments can't absorb the R&D for space missions when they're too busy spending all their money on foreign wars, and on keeping the oversized military stationed in well over 100 countries overseas. If we eliminated all that unnecessary expense, it'd probably be a lot easier to spend 1/10 of it on the space program, which would be a gigantic increase over its present budget.

        You may not like Ron Paul for some reason, but he's t
        • he's the ONLY candidate I've ever seen who talked sense about getting the US out of pointless foreign wars like Vietnam and Iraq

          Wow, I've suspected that conservatives live in a news bubble, but I didn't think it was that bad.

  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday May 11, 2008 @02:02PM (#23370218) Homepage

    Back when the Shuttle was called the "National Space Transportation System" and NASA was claiming that launch costs would come down, NASA used to talk about materials processing in space. That was a long time ago.

    The trouble with materials processing in space is that for small things, gravity is dominated by surface tension and other forces like Brownian motion. So biological processing in space never amounted to much. Some early Shuttle flights carried an electrophoresis apparatus designed for zero-G operation to make some kind of diabetes drug. But bioengineering went beyond that approach; today it's easier to engineer some bacterium to crank out whatever you need.

    For big objects, there would be some advantages (and many disadvantages) to working in zero G. Handling molten metal in zero G safely would be tough. One molten droplet could puncture anything we currently send into space. With gravity and in air, molten droplets don't travel very far and cool. In space, they can go a long way. Steel mills use floors of dirt or refractory brick in molten metal areas; concrete will blow up when its water content boils. Welding in space [newscientist.com] has been tried, but on a very small scale, and very nervously.

    Lift to orbit is far too expensive to justify flying heavy metal up there for casting and welding. This is one of those ideas that won't be feasible unless and until lift to orbit costs about what long distance air travel costs now.

    • This is one of those ideas that won't be feasible unless and until lift to orbit costs about what long distance air travel costs now.

      It's feasible if the new material is worth more then its production and transportation costs. There might be very valuable use-cases, so your statement seems a bit to early in my opinion. It might be worth it to check it out.

    • by Rinikusu (28164)
      Asteroid mining/refining?
      • by MattskEE (925706)
        The problem with this is that asteroids are very spread apart in our solar system, moving quickly, and usually also far away. Just getting to asteroids with any sort of heavy equipment capable of processing and refining it into useful metal will require a ridiculous amount of fuel.

        Getting it back to earth also very tricky. The US has at great expense designed systems capable of bringing space shuttles and command modules safely from orbit to the ocean or ground. The problem is, these are all expensive an
    • by soldeed (765559) on Sunday May 11, 2008 @11:56PM (#23374276)
      I beg to disagree! The potential usefulness of novel vacuum cast alloys is incalculable. I just can't stand the attitude that we should not do a thing because of expense or difficulty. A REAL engineer rolls up his sleeves and figures it out! Who knows? Some material(s) yet to be invented, only possible to make in a vacuum may be the key to making a spacecraft efficient enough to bring down launch costs! Developing new technologies is always difficult and expensive, but you never learn how to do anything until you overcome the obstacles and DO it!!
      • by soldeed (765559)
        AHEM! When I say 'VACUUM" above of course I meant "ZERO GEE" Yeah, I know!
      • by khallow (566160)

        I just can't stand the attitude that we should not do a thing because of expense or difficulty.

        I can't stand the attitude that we should do something at ridiculous expense merely because we're too dumb to figure out if there's any payout to it or how we can do it for less. "Incalculable" doesn't mean that it'll have any value. As I see it, the only sane way to approach space development and exploration is to use those scarce resources in an effective manner. That means paying a lot of attention to expense and getting a good idea of possible payout. If we don't know enough then explore the space in

      • by pimpimpim (811140)
        I would like to add to this: Sometimes you can already "learn" by making a careful analysis and perform a few preliminary test, find alternative ways and save a lot of money and time. As a scientist I sometimes talk to engineers who want to solve everything by "rolling up their sleeves" and DO: a gazillion of experiments just to avoid having to read the literature and look for causes of their problem. Because they end up thinking the cause is not their problem, their problem is their problem.

        Now I underst

  • Hey yeah! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Corpuscavernosa (996139) on Sunday May 11, 2008 @02:10PM (#23370268)
    That's where that "NASA approved" memory foam came from!
  • by Ihmhi (1206036)
    ...to Gundanium [wikipedia.org], one step closer to Gundams.
    • Everyone loves the overpowered monstrous Gundams, but there's something in me that likes the simpler Zakus. I also like the RK-92 Savage from Full Metal Panic. There's just something about clunky, mass-produced military technology.
    • by Guppy (12314)

      ...to Gundanium [wikipedia.org], one step closer to Gundams.
      I hear the Japanese Department of Agriculture is in charge of that project.

  • Haven't single crystal superalloy tech already solved the problems caused by gravity and metallurgy? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superalloy [wikipedia.org] I don't know, just asking...
    • by pohl (872)
      Doesn't the answer to that question depend on exactly what properties one would like the resulting material to have?
      • Well... yes. But the context (even the article summary) gives us that answer. The desired properties are heterogenity. By its nature a single crystal's elements are homogenously spread.

        'For instance, tantalum and niobium are heavy atoms and in doing the solidification process on the ground, they will segregate in different places and produce a very heterogeneous material. If you do this in microgravity, you obtain a very homogenous material because you prevent separation; and you have a much more efficient material, mechanically.'

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by mebollocks (798866)
          Oops, I mean "The desired properties are homogeneity."
        • by pohl (872)
          Yes, the summary did give that one property (homogeneity). Aren't there dozens of other properties that might be relevant in deciding whether or not the problem is 'solved', though? Certainly I couldn't take any old homogeneous substance and make an awesome turbofan blade out of it.
          • by pohl (872)
            I guess what I'm saying is that the point of materials science research like this is often to discover new materials with new sets of properties. I don't think they're aiming right at exactly what single crystal superalloy tech can do already. I think they're asking "what cool materials can we make this way?"
  • Can you get a similar gravity situation on Earth by having the chemical reactions happen in free fall?
    • by aXis100 (690904)
      If you RTA, it says that's how they currently do it - sounding rockets, parabolic flights and drop towers.
  • Why do you think they keep cement trucks' mixers rotaing slowly during transportation?
  • by the_other_chewey (1119125) on Monday May 12, 2008 @01:42AM (#23374860)
    TFA: The near absence of gravity (microgravity) ...

    JFTR: At 400km above ground (the ISS's orbit), the gravitational acceleration
    the Earth exerts is still about 88% of the acceleration on the ground.

    It is a very common misconception that gravity somehow instantly vanishes as you
    arrive in space. It isn't so - in fact, gravity is crucial for that weightlessness in orbit.
    • I think I see your point - it might be just a semantic one, but an interesting point anyway.

      True, the gravitation attraction of the earth still exists in orbit. In fact, it is what keeps the fast-moving ISS from flying off into space, because gravity keeps pulling the sideways-moving ISS down towards the Earth's center. This constant falling-but-never-landing state is called orbit.

      But can anyone please explain how this gravitation system affects experiments onboard the ISS? Common sense seems to in

      • by mollymoo (202721) *
        Orbit isn't the same as no gravity, but the difference is usually small enough to ignore. Any mass warps the spacetime around it, so there is a difference between orbit (freefall) and zero gravity (which is what you'd get a long, long way from anything). As one example, according to General Relativity, your proximity to a large mass affects the rate of the passage time. The clocks on GPS satellites are set to tick faster than ground-based clocks, so that when in orbit the clocks on the satellites appear to
  • I've always liked the idea of microgravity materials processes, but with launch costs the way they are, there isn't any way you're going to manufacture some novel material in space for use on the ground. There remains a lot of "interest" in microgravity processing in space, but largely it's because there's nothing else you can work on to justify having a space station.

    One caveat that there might be some scientific value to cranking out samples in orbit (e.g. creating samples large enough to do x-ray crys

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