Friday, February 5, 2010

Fantastic Future Friday: Death, Taste my Carbon.

The biggest limitation of doing absolutely any thing in space is it takes a lot of fuel therefore money to get something from Earth into Low Earth Orbit. So anything that reduces the weight of a Space Capsule, or Satellite, or anything you plan on sending into space saves a lot of money.

One area of research that was being pursued on the Constellation Program was making all composite capsules. The capsules were made out of Carbon Fiber which has a strength to weight ratio 10 times greater than steel. If all things were exactly equal, which they aren’t, you could replace 10 pounds of steel with 1 pound of Carbon Fiber. If things were that simple my 3,000 lb Nissan Sentra could weigh 300 lbs and to replace a tire I would need to lift a quarter of that weight, 75 lbs, and put a block under it. No need for a jack.

In the real world things aren’t that simple, steel bends easier than Carbon Fiber, Steel resists heat better and steel isn’t affected by ultraviolet radiation.

Most importantly steel has been used for centuries so its properties are well known. Carbon Fiber is relatively new on the block and researchers are still finding surprises with it.

That’s why it is important for NASA to continue to research into what areas in space capsules, and by extension planes and cars, Carbon Fiber can be used to replace steel and what areas need to remain steel.

As NASA researches into Carbon Fiber’s properties engineers will be more comfortable in handling it and it will work it’s way into more products driving the cost down. While using Carbon Fiber alone won’t make the next generation of sub-compacts weight 1/10th of the current models, even a reduction in half would greatly increase my fuel economy and give it a better power to weight ratio making it perform better.

As NASA continues to research the properties of Carbon Fiber, it will give engineers more options in making consumer products that work better, leading to a fantastic future.


Stephanie B said...

I'm all for pursuing carbon fiber options where possible. I'm not sure your problems align with my own take on it. You're right, of course, about the lack of available data. Most assessment tools we have were designed to use metal and metal alloys and composite materials just don't perform the same. However, most composites we looked at had better resistance to heat (as our reinforced carbon carbon does on the Shuttle wing leading edge). The issues I'm aware of include cost (way more expensive - yes, I know that shouldn't be important but I never heard the discussion withou this being the first point), change in strength properties when exposed to extreme cold (this can happen to metals, too, but it is generally more severe with composites), the way they fail (brittle materials shatter rather than bend, break - not good for a pressurized vessel), and susceptibility to manufacturing flaws (as well as the ability to detect critical flaws). I think you're right about UV embrittlement, too. The properties look great on paper, but the space environment is very very harsh, and that's hard on many types of materials.

In all these cases, it's certainly possible that more research and testing can find us workable solutions. In fact, given the weight and strength advantages, the potential advantages in corrosion resistance and thermal properties, a serious developmental program on composite materials for future use is probably an excellent idea - and may have helpful implications for us regular ground-hugging slobs as well. Like your little car.

For instance, carbon fiber crumple zones can be very effective for mitigating landing and other impact loads.

JL said...

Hey, if carbon fiber does not work out in space...mainly because we may never be going back now :) I think it could make me a really fancy -- and safe -- pair of trousers:)

I have been in envy with my friends who have carbon fiber bikes for years, and you know what, I'd much rather see tax dollars going to this than to Fannie Mae

Project Savior said...

As far as the tax dollars in research its a win-win situation. The research the government does gets passed on to private companies, that make better products, that make more money, then they pay taxes on that money.
Every once in a while government research provides a break through that boosts the economy to soaring heights like Jets, The computer chip, and the internet. But little innovations pay for themselves as well. Like the Army researching a jeep that could go more than 200 miles without breaking down revolutionized the auto industry.

Project Savior said...

I had forgotten about the Carbon-Carbon on the shuttle, I had read, without thinking about that, how the Spaceship One couldn't go higher not from lack of thrust but because of the heat limitations of the Carbon Fiber hull.

Doctor Faustroll said...

How about injecting excess carbon into obese Americans and shooting them into space?

Can you see a downside to this?