During the Apollo Program, astronauts on the Moon encountered a small menace that created big problems: lunar dust. Similar to how tiny bits of Styrofoam behave on Earth — adhering to anything they touch — lunar dust sticks to spacesuits, spacecraft, tools, and equipment, and is extremely difficult to remove. The clingy nature of the substance is partly due to its electrostatic charge, but is also due to its physical characteristics. The sharp, irregularly shaped grains have edges like burrs and feel like abrasive talcum powder to the touch.
Not only a nuisance, Moon dust is also a potential health and safety risk. Because it is often laden with ultraviolet radiation and high iron content, it can be detrimental if it gets into the eyes or lungs. In fact, some of the particles are so small that the human body does not even detect them in order to expel them. On the Apollo missions, equipment covered with the dark-colored Moon dust suffered from the absorption of sunlight and tended to overheat.
NASA has investigated tools and techniques to manage the sticky stuff, including magnets, vacuums, and shields. In 2009, Kennedy Space Center in Florida collaborated with a small business to investigate a method to harden the Moon’s surface — in a sense, to “pave” the surface — so astronauts and robots could land, drive, and work without disrupting and scattering the material.
Kennedy awarded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding to Troy, NY-based Ceralink, a developer of microwave processing technologies, to demonstrate a microwave system that could heat lunar soil to over 2,000 °F, temperatures high enough to solidify the surface. The company performed demonstrations using microwave technology that could be incorporated into a roving lunar system, to heat the surface of a large bed of 8” deep simulated lunar soil.
The technique employed through the SBIR applied microwave heat only to the surface of a material rather than an entire object. In addition to demonstrating this new approach, Ceralink also examined the feasibility of using modeling software to simulate microwave heating on a larger scale.
As part of the SBIR, Ceralink teamed with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Gerling Applied Engineering to investigate and refine the computer modeling technology. This opportunity allowed the team to test the modeling program against an experiment. As a result, the team advanced a computer modeling capability that is now incorporated into Ceralink’s commercial services.
Seeing the Benefits
Ceralink specializes in microwaves, materials, processing, and design, providing microwave technology for research and manufacturing of ceramic materials, glass, metals, and polymers. The company’s microwave testing center boasts a range of heating equipment for a variety of processes.
Thanks to the NASA SBIR, the company is now using the resulting computer modeling technology to predict how materials like ceramics, metals, and glass behave with microwave heat. The program allows Ceralink to take what is learned from a process developed in the lab for a small microwave furnace, and apply the information to simulate how the same process would work in a much larger furnace. The company simply inputs the material properties, and the model runs the specific configuration, including the amount of microwave power that would be required on a larger level.
Ceralink is currently using the NASA-enhanced program for a U.S. Department of Energy project to design and test microwave technology for cracking hydrocarbons like ethane, and turning it into ethylene for making plastics like polyethylene and polyester. The model has applicability for other Ceralink customers as well. For example, the company recently built a system for making specialty carbon foam for composites tooling for aircraft, spacecraft, and automobiles. The process required the materials to be heated to over 1,800 °F, and with conventional heating methods, it took one week to fire the material. With a small system developed in Ceralink’s lab, the firing was complete in less than a day.
As the new tool impacts Ceralink’s current innovations, it has the potential to impact NASA’s future developments. In 2011, the company began working on an SBIR to apply microwave technology for curing epoxy composites for aircraft, helicopters, and spacecraft.
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