Space technology and its earthly uses

Space alloys help mend bones
Space alloys help mend bones
8 August 2002

New uses for smart materials drew much interest last month at the Farnborough International Air Show 2002, for a range of applications from astronauts’ gloves to kids’ braces.

Materials developed for use in space but which could be used on Earth were shown at a seminar as well as materials made for use on Earth but with possible applications in space.

ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme (TTP) organized the seminar together with John Rootes, Managing Director of JRA Technology Ltd, UK, who invited a number of UK companies to present their new technology and discuss possible novel applications in space, aerospace and elsewhere. “We want to offer aerospace designers and engineers the opportunity to update themselves on some advances in very interesting new materials,” explained Rootes.

SMAs for Space

Artist view of the Rosetta lander
Rosetta’s Philae lander on comet nucleus

Extraordinary materials called shape memory alloys (SMA) have been developed by the European space programme for use as lightweight temperature-controlled actuators on spacecraft. These can be stretched like elastic bands but remember their original shape to which they return when warmed to a predefined temperature. In space such alloys can be used to release solar cell panels after a spacecraft launch; on Earth they are now being used successfully in several sectors.

A novel SMA application will be carried on board the ESA Rosetta mission. Martin Whalley from Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (UK), presented an actuator using SMA that will be used by Rosetta's Ptolemy, a gas analysis instrument.

Cold SMA helium gas actuator
Cold SMA helium gas actuator

"Ptolemy requires a supply of helium to drive gaseous samples of the comet Wirtanen through the various parts of the instrument. The helium is stored in two tanks which are completely sealed immediately after filling to minimise the amount of helium lost during the cruise to the comet,” said Martin Whalley. “When we need to use the helium supply, a frangible pillar in the end of each tank is snapped, thus breaking the seal and releasing the helium for use in the instrument.”

Warmed helium gas actuator
Warmed helium gas actuator

Rosetta is launched in January 2003, but will not reach the comet Wirtanen until November 2011, so a very reliable and simple system is needed to open the tanks at the exact date. “We decided to develop an actuator based upon SMA. This is basically a passive component that changes shape and generates force when heated to the pre-determined temperature. It is also small and lightweight – an ideal solution to our problem!” explained Whalley.

SMAs for Earth

Demonstrating SMA for medical treatments
Demonstrating SMA for medical treatments

Tony Anson, founder of Anson Medical UK, presented a number of medical SMA applications, one of which was an orthodontic spring to control the movement of teeth. “This can be stretched much more than a conventional spring and allows a constant gentle force to be applied to precise areas. As well as being more comfortable for the patient, the teeth move two and a half times faster to their correct position than in previous treatments,” he said.

Anson first developed his expertise with SMA working on space applications in the early 90s. He received support funding from the ESA TTP to assist him in investigating medical applications. His company is now making important contributions to the medical devices market.

SMA repairs damaged aorta
SMA repairs damaged aorta

Another medical device using SMA technology is a very thin tube which can be inserted into the veins and which then returns to its original size when it reaches its final destination – a damaged aorta.

“To date we have inserted this in just over 600 patients, mostly at the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham. The surgeon we work with has commented that this is the only device that could be used for this sort of treatment,” reported Anson.

"Among the 20 start-up companies kicked-off with support from ESA TTP, Anson Medical is a success story: Using space technology in non-space fields provides solutions to down to Earth problems,” added Bruno Naulais, European Space Incubator Network Manager at ESA. “The Agency is taking further steps to accelerate this spin-off process. ESA is setting up in Noordwijk (NL) the European Space Incubator and together with the EU it is also establishing, the European Space Incubator Network (ESINET). These initiatives will provide easier access to capital, offices and business support, all mandatory for startups and entrepreneurs using space technology.”

Quantum Tunnelling Composites

Astronaut suit with QTC switches
Astronaut suit with QTC switches

A very different kind of material was presented by David Lussey from Peratech, UK: Quantum Tunnelling Composite (QTC). This is a conductive composite whose conductivity depends on the pressure applied. It can be produced in a sheet form, similar to a piece of rubber, or in granular form in different sizes down to below 15 microns.

“QTC has unique and fascinating characteristics. It is an extremely good insulator when nothing is happening to it but when we start doing things to QTC like pressing, stretching or twisting it, it changes to a metallic-like conductor, it then returns to the insulating state when the force is removed,” said David Lussey. “Its conductivity is proportional to the pressure applied and its sensitivity is very high due to the quantum tunnelling effect and the very large resistance range of over one trillion ohms.”

Switches and controls are obvious uses for QTC. On a drill the material can be used to make non-sparking controls as it provides safe control switches even in areas where there is a risk of explosion. “We can insert QTC in the granular form in a piece of cloth and it becomes an intelligent material with electric conductive characteristics. Researchers have created built-in switches on the arms of astronauts' suits which are easier to operate when the astronaut is in space working with large gloves,” explained Lussey.

Impact monitoring is another fields under research. QTC could determine whether a car is hitting a pedestrian or another vehicle and the vehicle will respond accordingly. One of the big car manufacturers is now carrying out research in this area using QTC detectors. Other uses of QTC are being considered by the automobile industry because QTC is a tough but sensitive technology that needs only minimum power requirements. QTC is also showing great potential in the detection of volatile organic compounds, an area presently of interest to the oil and gas industry.

Nanomaterials

Demonstrating nanomaterials
Demonstrating nanomaterials

“Nanotechnology is becoming a buzz word these days,” said Paul Reip, Managing Director of QinetiQ Nanomaterials, a spin-off company set up by the QinetiQ organisation. “It offers a number of capabilities that can be split into two major areas: nanotechnology and nanomaterials. Nanotechnology is an existing technology that scientists use for making very small objects. Nanomaterials have very special characteristics as a result of their small size which is in the order of 10-9 metres. To put this into proportion the difference between one particle and a football is similar to that between a football and the moon!”

Because of their size, nanomaterials possess interesting physical chemical electrical properties. QinetiQ Nanomaterials is carrying out research in the area between 5 and 100 nanometres. Below this size range the material suffers from the quantum effect and above it behaves like normal material. Within this range nanomaterials have special characteristics.

For instance, they can be used in sunscreens as they absorb the light more effectively and provide better results than classical chemical processes, to produce ever smaller chips for electronic equipment and also in new types of batteries. “Nanomaterials provide next-generation capabilities and enables industry to do things that cannot be done with classical materials,” said Paul Reip. “The potential for the space, aerospace, and other markets is enormous!”

Bruno Naulais added, "we see many potential applications of this technology in space, like EMI shielding, re-usable or re-programmable fuse, thermal control sub-system, innovative switching capabilities, etc."

To know more about opportunities for using space technology on Earth visit the Technology Transfer Programme pages.

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