Engineers from NASA on-board the ISS have begun creating self-assembling microscopic particles that could be used to manufacture materials during spaceflight.
NASA’s Advanced Colloids Experiment-Temperature-7 investigation (ACE-T-7) team contends that these particles could come together like building blocks to create materials with tailored nanostructures.
The end result could someday give scientists the ability to change the behavioral properties of a material according to a set of instructions embedded within the particle.
“You’re going to have to take along powders and colloids comprised of shape- and size-specific microscopic particles that fit together different ways; then a machine can use these novel materials to make replacement parts so people can survive and fix things,” said New York University professor Paul Chaikin, the investigation’s primary investigator.
The team contends that scientists could embed a code at the nano-level of a material using different forms of energy as “control knobs,” thus giving it different instructions for various conditions.
In the case of ACE-T-7, researchers are manipulating temperature to control the assembly and interactions of the particles.
Suspended in a fluid medium, these particles are designed to bind to one another in specific ways to form 3D crystals when exposed to high or low temperatures.
“At one temperature, one crystallization phase is favored and at another, another crystallization phase is favored,” said New York University’s Stefano Sacanna, one of the project’s co-investigators. “Essentially temperature is an external stimuli to guide and help the particles bind in the right fashion. It is one way for us to guide them or control their assembly.”
According to the team, the microgravity environment of the space station allows researchers to observe how the crystals are growing, as well as separate the effects of gravity on the investigation.
On Earth, this would be impossible since the force of gravity pulls all of the crystals to the bottom of the container, not allowing for observation.
New York University’s Andrew Hollingsworth, a project co-investigator, intones that in the microgravity environment, the force on the particles is almost a million times smaller, so they will remain suspended in the fluid medium, and 3D crystals can be grown and observed without the damaging effects of sedimentation.
Image, video and content: NASA