NTB: What types of commercial applications do you envision for these technologies, and how long do you think it will take to commercialize them?
Ding: Well, of course, I look at NASA’s interests. We’re going to the moon and hopefully Mars. One objective of going to the moon is that we have to learn to live off the land and show that we can make parts, and make repairs. With long duration space travel, like going to Mars, you can’t take vehicles full of spare parts, so you have to be able to make things on the fly. Welding is a big part of making things. If an engine part fails, for example, there must be capability to repair it or make a new part. Welding is a big part of manufacturing in space. We know that, based on some previous work we did back in the 90s with the Russians with an electron beam welding experiment that we conducted here at Marshall, we learned that electron beam welding and fusion weld processes are too dangerous for the astronauts. We don’t like that, so we have to go to solid state welding. I believe that ultrasonics will allow us to have a stir weld process that will work using minimal forces. And anything we can do to reduce manual forces in the weightlessness of space would be a benefit.
Another application would be for simple robotic control, for different fields of use. That’s another area for the ultrasonics. Right now, with thermal stir welding, I believe it could be a significant advancement in welding technology, especially for your high-melting-temperature alloys that are difficult to weld with friction stir welding.