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Nanomaterials designed for space travel

Researchers are using NCI’s supercomputing facility to investigate the interaction of nanomaterials with metals that could be used in future space travel. Dr Christoph Rohmann from the University of Queensland is researching new composite materials, metals that are reinforced with boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs).

A three dimensional grid of hundreds of purple rods linked with balls, with a cylinder of blue and yellow balls in the centre.

A boron nitride nanotube in an aluminium matrix, modelled by Dr Rohmann at the University of Queensland.

Dr Rohmann says that BNNTs have remarkable properties. These include “a heat and oxidation resistance exceeding 700 ⁰C, a molecular structure 100 times stronger than common steel at a fraction of the weight, and a radiation shielding 1000 times that of lead.”

He is working with scientists from NASA to produce these new materials and test them for use in future space travel. “A composite that offers a reduction in weight, increased strength and protection from radiation will further push the boundaries of space exploration and manned missions,” he says.

NCI plays a crucial role in the research process by providing the resources necessary to model these large systems. Dr Rohmann says that his research uses NCI to “model the integration of metal and BNNTs, which represent extremely large systems that need a significant amount of computing time and memory. Therefore we are grateful for the computing resources NCI provides.”

Working with scientists at NASA provides Dr Rohmann with the experimental data and insight required to accurately model the composites. He can compare his computational results with the experiments conducted at NASA and make predictions of experimental outcomes. For example, the strength of the binding between BNNTs and metal in the structure obtained from the calculations allows for a good approximation of what to expect in the experiments.

A strong binding will likely result in the disintegration of the BNNTs, causing the formation of unwanted by products which are often brittle and therefore would weaken the new material. The results from the calculations help NASA scientists in their choice of metal, showing the value of modelling to the experimental work they do. As Dr Rohmann says, “the NCI supercomputer is of significant importance to this project.”

QCIFUni-of-Queensland

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