The principal objective of microgravity fluid and materials research is to gain an understanding of how gravity affects such fundamental processes as the solidification and crystallisation of materials, and the behaviour of fluids.
On Earth, gravity induces buoyancy-driven convection, sedimentation and hydrostatic pressure, thereby creating defects or irregularities in the internal structure of materials, which, in turn, alter their properties and limit their strength or performance. By observing the behaviour of materials in space, scientists are able to understand the formation, structure and properties of materials under simplified experimental conditions. Only in the microgravity of space, for example, is it possible to process liquids without containers, or to conduct quantitative studies of segregation, a phenomenon that influences the distribution of a solid’s components as it forms from a liquid or gas.
Research under conditions of weightlessness can optimise computer models of major industrial processes, leading to the development of new production methods or materials. Potential applications include increased reliability of numerical simulation and control of casting facilities in metallurgical industry, and improved production in materials processing, crystal growth, fluid management and combustion.
Many European industries including metal producers, refiners and end users, oil companies, car manufacturers, energy producers and pharmaceutical companies, are involved in this kind of research. Future experimentation on the ISS may eventually enable the limited production of exceptionally high quality materials and materials with unique properties that could be used as benchmark samples for industry.