New Space-Proof Materials use old Ceramics Tech for Next-gen Propulsion

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ceramics
Vadim Sadowski | Shutterstock.com

Researchers have created a tough material for next-gen rocket engines. This new Velcro-inspired “fuzzy fibers” could withstand extreme heat and pressure that materials are subject to in the harsh, outer-space environment.

Progress in aeronautics and aerospace is dependent on the development of new materials, which often take the form of composites. In this way, materials you may have thought wouldn’t be used on a spacecraft, like ceramics, are incorporated for their benefits and other materials mitigate their drawbacks. Ceramics have been used by human civilization for all of recorded history yet we are still learning novel applications of this old tech.

New approaches to the treatment of ceramics are underway to make them even more practical.

Ceramics in Space

Unlike plastic or metal, ceramic components in rocket engines retain their full dimensional stability at high temperatures and withstand thermal variations.

For aerospace, ceramics are used because of certain properties: reliability, solidity, and resistance to extreme heat. An inherent weakness of ceramic materials is their fragility. As a result, silicon-carbide fibers, SiC, are used to reinforce ceramic composite materials for rocket engines. Still, although they are quite reliable, they tend to crack and lose strength after prolonged exposure to oxygen.

NASA dedicates a whole branch – the Ceramics Branch at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio – to conduct research and forge partnerships to create innovative ceramics composites for aerospace propulsion engines.

Velcro-Inspired “Fuzzy” Fibers for Stronger Ceramics

Researchers at Rice University have been working on a new technique to further improve the reliability of ceramic composites for rockets. In collaboration with NASA, Professor Pulickel Ajayan, from a Rice University laboratory of materials, took inspiration from Velcro to create fibers of silicon carbide, which look and act like Velcro, but on a nanoscale.

A study on the work was published in the American Chemical Society journal, Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Dr. Ajayan and his lab team embedded SiC (silicon carbide) nanotubes and nanowires into the surface of fibers provided by NASA. The fibers display nano curls on their exposed parts, which would act like hook-and-loop Velcro.

Rice University and NASA silicon-carbide fuzzy fibers can withstand a temperature of 2912 degrees Fahrenheit.Click To Tweet

This “fuzzy” structure – enabling strong interlocking connections where the fibers tangle –makes the composite less prone to cracking and, addressing the main issue with current ceramics, act as a sealing to prevent oxidation that alters the chemical composition of SiC fibers.

These fuzzy fibers could stand up to the aggressive aerospace environment and retain mechanical reliability necessary for operating under such extreme conditions. With their thermal properties (withstanding temperatures up to 2912 degrees Fahrenheit) and resistance to erosion, they would extend endurance limit of future high-heat propulsion engines.

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