Last week, NASA selected 15 university-led proposals for the study of innovative, early stage technologies that address high priority needs of America’s space program. Out of the 15 selected proposals, a few specifically focus on composites research.

One proposal, submitted by the University of Minnesota’s Traian Dumitrica, will address what he believes is a void in multiscale modeling and simulation capability, as well as the ability to predict how the smaller scale mechanical properties of carbon nanotubes impact the macro-scale mechanical properties of carbon nanotube (CNT)-based composites. In a general sense, Dumitrica refers to the project as uncovering “the carbon nanotube material genome.”

“NASA has been interested in nanotube composites for more than ten years,” said Dumitrica. “What they need in this moment is precisely a method that scales up the atomistic simulations to breach them to continuum metals. That’s where we come into the picture. We are hoping that this method we are developing helps guide the carbon nanotube processing effort at NASA.”

Dumitrica believes that by bridging the gap between smaller and larger scale properties of carbon nanotubes, his research could revolutionize space flight. The method he is proposing could make spacecraft lighter and make space travel more affordable. In his proposal, Dumitrica notes:

“A significant mass reduction of the load bearing aerospace structures without compromising resistance to damage will have a transformative impact for space flight. For this reason, there is a sustained effort to develop super-lightweight composites.”

In addition to being very light and cost-effective, carbon nanotubes are also multifunctional, a critical quality for new-age air and spacecraft materials.

“In addition to being very light and mechanically strong, it also has interesting electrical properties,” said Dumitrica. “Carbon nanotubes have high conductivity.”

Dumitrica’s project, like all of the other proposals, has a three-year timeline, with the ultimate goal of NASA implementing his research to future spacecraft.