1 September 2002
'Self-healing' materials for aircraft?
Ames, Iowa—Driven by a vision to develop spacecraft and airplanes capable of "healing themselves" when damaged, NASA awarded a $2 million grant to the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation (CNDE) at Iowa State University (ISU).
NASA wants to significantly improve the reliability of future aerospace vehicles by developing a new class of sensors integrated within aerospace structures. The sensors would continuously monitor an aircraft structure's condition and take corrective actions, if damaged.
The new approach to sensors is part of NASA's aeronautics blueprint, unveiled earlier this year to develop vehicles that are like biological organisms—having the ability to sense damage in their conditions and essentially heal themselves.
"Biological sciences are providing a new way to look at machines," NASA said in the blueprint's Executive Summary. "Mimicking nature will enhance flight safety and result in more reliable air vehicles," the summary said.
Bruce Thompson, CDNE director, said the NASA program draws on ISU's core strengths developing nondestructive materials and sensors. The project will focus on 15 technical areas, he said, including leak detection, techniques to inspect composite materials, and the use of simulators to guide the development of inspection techniques.
For example, materials that "heal themselves," Thompson said, could "release chemicals to seal damage. You could have a composite material with packets of epoxies embedded in the material. It's a question of transport: How do you have the material available that's necessary to make the repair?"
"Some of our thoughts are 20 to 30 years down the road," Thompson said. Futuristic concepts ISU scientists will be working on include integrated fiber-optic sensors, three separate approaches to developing aircraft skins that "morph" or change shape to adapt to their environment, and nanotube-based sensors. Another task, he said, is miniaturizing an array of chemical sensors—making them "small, light, and versatile"—to sense different types of gases in a manned spacecraft.
ISU has housed CDNE, a National Science Foundation industry/university cooperative research center, since 1985. The center has nearly two dozen corporate sponsors, many of which are in the aerospace industry.
The $2 million grant will continue the program through September 2003, at which time CDNE will apply for an extension, Thompson said.
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