Plastics For Space Technology?

By Nishchay Pandey

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Whether it is a water bottle or a car tire, plastics are everywhere, it is practically everywhere. It is relatively easy to make and can be strong and inexpensive. However, there are applications for plastics that take it to another level. Their potential applications in space technology. It can take anywhere from $2,790 to $5,000 per kilogram to send an object into space. Since plastics are relatively lightweight than metals, in theory, plastics could replace some metals for space technology and exploration, and also free up space to carry more fuel for longer expeditions.

There’s just one major drawback of plastics in space, the extreme radiation. Extreme levels of radiation in space can damage plastics. A PhD student from Florida is working to solve this particular issue, Kazue Orikasa is taking up the challenge by its horns.

With the help of a research fellowship offered by NASA, Orikasa is working on the research and development of strong plastics which have higher thermal stability and can withstand the extreme temperatures and radiation in space. She plans to integrate nanomaterials and plastics to create thermostable composite materials.

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“These composites could be used to shield electronics from radiation exposure,” Orikasa says. “If radiation reaches electronics, it can interrupt signal processing.”

“Kazue is an absolutely brilliant person,” says Agarwal, chair of FIU’s department of mechanical and materials engineering. “Making a single material that is resistant to radiation while being durable and lightweight is not easy. In the end, combining these qualities could elongate the lifetime of materials that we send to space.”

This is an area where graphene has the ability to shine bright, and Orikasa thinks the same.

“One nanomaterial, graphene, has a theoretical strength much higher than any other material on Earth. Much higher than diamonds, or anything,” Orikasa says.

Mixing the nanomaterials and plastics is a task in itself, it is similar to making cake batter, lumps and clumps can throw the proverbial wrench in the cake, Orikasa also said, “When you mix nanomaterials and plastics, the nanomaterials create clumps. It’s like when you use powder to make chocolate milk and the powder creates blobs.”

Hopefully, Orikasa is working on a method to combine nanomaterials and plastic in a controlled, consistent way. If the method is a success it has the potential to revolutionise space technology.


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