The U.S. X-Plane Program included the first-of-its-kind research in aerodynamics and astronautics with experimental vehicles, including the first aircraft to break the sound barrier; the first aircraft to fly in excess of 100,000, then 200,000, and then 300,000 feet; and the first aircraft to fly at three, four, five, and then six times the speed of sound.
During the 1990s, NASA started developing a new thermal protection material to test on the X-33 and X-34 supersonic aircraft. The X-33 was intended to demonstrate the technologies needed for a new reusable launch vehicle and was projected to reach an altitude of approximately 50 miles and speeds of more than Mach 11. The X-34, a small, reusable technology demonstrator for a launch vehicle, was intended to reach an altitude of 250,000 feet and fly at speeds of Mach 8.
As a result of its research and development efforts, NASA’s Ames Research Center invented the Protective Ceramic Coating Material (PCCM). Applied to a surface, the thin, lightweight coating could protect the material underneath from extreme temperatures. The capability of the technology came from its emissivity, which radiated heat away from the surface it covered, thereby decreasing the amount of heat transferred to the underlying material. PCCM not only increased the capability of materials to withstand higher temperatures, it also exhibited impressive thermal shock, vibration, and acoustic performance. In addition, it proved to be resistant to abrasion and mechanical damage and was also environmentally safe, due to it being water-based and containing no solvents. Even though funding for the X-33 and X-34 ended in 2001, PCCM continued on a path of innovation.
Shortly after Ames made PCCM available for licensing, Emisshield Inc. (then Wessex Incorporated) in Blacksburg, Virginia, stumbled upon the technology, and according to John Olver, president and CEO of Emisshield, “After we looked it over, analyzed it, read about it, and checked on some of the references, we called Ames and said we’d like to license it. We wanted to know how they did that.”
Olver and other representatives from Emisshield talked to the NASA inventors to learn more about PCCM, and in 1996, obtained a license for the technology. With assistance from the Center for Adhesion and Sealant Sciences at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), Emisshield performed extensive testing, research, and development of the coating. By 2001, the company had expanded its license agreement to include all applications except space and space vehicle applications.
During the first few years, Emisshield made several changes to make PCCM more practical to use. One of the properties Emisshield adjusted was the shelf life of the material. “When you mixed it up, it set like concrete in about an hour. You couldn’t use it after that,” Olver says. Emisshield also modified PCCM so it would adhere to metal and was easy to apply with a spray gun.
“As we progressed, we took the base license and advanced it into two new patents,” says Olver. “NASA said, ‘That’s what we intended for you to do, to license it, make it better, and commercialize it.’”
Previously featured in Spinoff 2001 and Spinoff 2004, Emisshield provides its NASA-derived technology, also called Emisshield, in more than 20 different products. Each formulation is different based on the material it is being applied to as well as the temperature and conditions of the environment. “We are changing the surface properties of existing materials—metals, ceramics—to improve their performance,” says Olver. “It will work just about anywhere there is heat—from electricity to manufacturing glass and plastic bottles.”