Researching “super dust” and other materials that could reduce the cost of air and space travel


February 11

Whether researching stronger, lighter materials for use in planes and spaceships or keeping squashed insects from sticking to airplane wings, Mia Siochi’s work at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia has the potential to improve aviation and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Siochi, a research materials engineer, leads a NASA team that is seeking to tap the potential of nanotechnology to reduce the weight of space launch vehicles by up to 30 percent, or about 200,000 pounds. With launch costs being about $10,000 per pound, lightening the load leads to significantly lower costs.

“It’s a game-changing technology,” said Siochi. “Every pound we save will make space travel much more affordable.”

Siochi is working specifically with carbon nanotubes, a type of nanoparticle that has the potential to produce structural components far superior to materials now in use. These nanoparticles are about 25 times stronger than aluminum and nearly twice as strong as carbon fiber composites now in use, and have a diameter that is about 100,000 times smaller than a strand of hair.

“If you see it in a jar it looks like soot, but when you look at it under a microscope, it looks like very small tubes. Its super dust,” Siochi said.

Scientists have been able to produce, consistently and in large volumes, lengths of about a millimeter of good quality carbon nanotubes and are working to scale it up and to test the materials in flight.

The nanomaterial also has electrical properties that can make it highly conductive, offering potential to replace miles of copper wiring in aircraft and enabling it to serve as a sensor, Siochi said. It is envisioned that airplane wings designed with these materials can have sensors built in, allowing them to make slight adjustments while in flight, creating efficiencies that reduce fuel use.

“What she’s doing is really significant,” said Peter Lillehei, principal investigator for materials and structures. “She understands the state of the art and she knows where the field is lacking. That’s what she’s targeting.”

Another of Siochi’s projects is more down to earth—keeping insects from gumming up airplane wings. Mashed bugs can create drag and drive up fuel consumption, leading to increased costs and added pollution.

Siochi and her colleagues are experimenting with anti-stick coatings on wings to reduce residues that build up when bees, mosquitos or even gnats smash onto wings at high velocity. The “bug team” hopes to engineer surfaces to prevent bug remains from adhering and disrupting the smooth flow of air across the wings, creating turbulence.

The team designed a test to evaluate the performance of the surface coatings on airplane wings. “We’re not finished analyzing all the data, but we know some surfaces have fewer visible bug splats versus uncoated ones,” she said.

Another project involves self-repairing materials, a job Sochi said is turning what some see as science fiction into reality.

For example, if a puncture could repair itself within microseconds, the damage to a gas tank that gets shot at in enemy territory would not lose fuel, but would self-heal. Astronauts would not have go out and repair damage from a micrometeoroid that strikes their spaceship if the material does so for itself, she said.

“A lot of what we do are things that are more futuristic,” said Siochi. “We imagine what can be possible and we’re actually moving toward making that possible,” she said. “It’s like Star Wars or Star Trek.”

Joining NASA was “a happy accident” that occurred when Siochi, who was finishing up her Ph.D. at Virginia Tech, gave a lab tour to a visiting speaker who was the head of the Composites and Polymers Branch at Langley. He offered to hire her as a contractor and eight years later, she was hired by NASA Langley.

Siochi, who is of Chinese ancestry, grew up in the Philippines and was familiar with NASA and the moon landing, and had an inclination for math and science. She has five siblings but she is the only one in the family who entered a science field.

“I’ve always been interested in science,” she said. “It’s the thrill of discovery.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.

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