NASA Spinoff

The materials used to make airplanes and space shuttles do not last forever. That is why NASA frequently inspects launch vehicles, fuel tanks, crew habitats, and other components for structural damage. The timely and accurate detection of cracks or other damage can prevent failure, prolong service life, and ensure safety and reliability.

Smaller, with enhanced capabilities. Less expensive, while providing improved performance. Energy efficient, without sacrificing capabilities. Smaller, less expensive, and energy efficient—but still highly durable under some of the most extreme conditions known.

On January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia launched on mission STS-107. At T plus 82 seconds, with the orbiter rocketing upwards at 1,870 miles per hour, a briefcase-sized chunk of insulating foam broke off from the external fuel tank and struck Columbia’s left wing. During reentry on February 1, hot gasses entered the wing through the damaged area of the orbiter’s thermal protection system, causing devastating structural failure that led to the destruction of Columbia and the deaths of the seven crew members onboard.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are between 4 and 11 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illnesses in the United States each year—caused by pathogens in public drinking water. The bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella have within the past few years contaminated spinach and tomato supplies, leading to nationwide health scares. Elsewhere, waterborne diseases are devastating populations in developing countries like Zimbabwe, where a cholera epidemic erupted in 2008 and claimed over 4,000 lives.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

NASA intends to return people to the Moon, but this time to stay. Future plans include living quarters, scientific laboratories, a permanent lunar community, and a training ground for a future mission to Mars. Ahead of these first 21st century boots on the Moon, though, the Space Agency needs to make sure a couple of things are in place, including one thing that most of us here on Earth have begun to accept as a necessary part of any human existence: the Internet.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

The space shuttle is unique among spacecraft in that it glides back to Earth and lands like an airplane, usually touching ground near where it launched at Kennedy Space Center, but sometimes, in poor weather, gliding into the back-up landing site at Dryden Flight Research Center and then catching a ride back to the Cape on the back of a modified Boeing 747. Before NASA began flying the shuttle, though, astronauts had a longer, more involved trip back to base after a mission. Their capsule, called the command module, would plunge through the atmosphere before releasing a series of parachutes that would slow the craft enough for it to land on the water without too significant of an impact. Called a splashdown, this type of landing put the astronauts out in the ocean, where a specially designated U.S. Navy ship would then deploy a helicopter to retrieve the space travelers. Waiting for the rescue, the astronauts would release a highly visible marker dye into the water, then leave the command module and climb aboard a life raft.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Since its founding in 1958, NASA has pioneered the use of different frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum—including X-ray, microwave, and infrared wavelengths—to gather information about distant celestial bodies. During the 1962 Mariner 2 mission, NASA used microwave radiometers that operated in the range of 15–23 gigahertz (GHz) to assess the surface temperature of Venus and to determine the percentage of water vapor in its atmosphere.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Special textiles have been mission-critical components for successful space missions since the early years of NASA’s first parachutes and space suits in the late 1950s. One of the Agency’s more recognizable uses for textiles, the Mars Pathfinder airbags, provided a cushioned, instrument-friendly landing in 1997. This same technology also successfully protected the Mars Exploration Rovers when they landed on the Red Planet in 2004.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Successfully sustaining life in space requires closely monitoring the environment to ensure the health of the crew. Astronauts can be more sensitive to air pollutants because of the closed environment, and pollutants are magnified in space exploration because the astronauts’ exposure is continuous. Sources of physical, chemical, and microbiological contaminants include humans and other organisms, food, cabin surface materials, and experiment devices.

One hazard is the off-gassing of vapors from plastics and other inorganic materials aboard the vehicle, vividly illustrated by Skylab—in 1973, NASA scientists identified 107 volatile organic compounds in the air inside the Skylab space station. All synthetic materials exude low-level gasses, known as off-gassing; when these chemicals are trapped in a closed environment, as was the case with the Skylab, the inhabitants may become ill. To avoid this, air sampling systems on the International Space Station (ISS) periodically check the air for potential hazards. Advanced, high-efficiency particulate air filters and periodic filter cleanings have been successful in keeping harmful vapors out of the air. Other significant contaminants that pose hazards to the crew are microbial growth, both bacterial and fungal; air, water, and surface sampling by the crew in conjunction with periodic cleaning keep the microbial levels on the ISS in check.

altTo monitor microbial levels, crew members use devices called grab sample containers, dual absorbent tubes, and swabs to collect station air, water, and surface samples and send them to Earth for detailed analysis and identification every 6 months. This data provides controllers on Earth detailed information about the type of microbial contaminants on board the ISS. The controllers can then give additional direction to the crew on sanitation if increased microbial growth is identified.
Missions to the Moon and Mars will increase the length of time that astronauts live and work in closed environments. To complete future long-duration missions, the crews must remain healthy in these closed environments; hence, future spacecraft must provide even more advanced sensors to monitor environmental health and accurately determine and control the physical, chemical, and biological environment of the crew living areas and their environmental control systems.

Ames Research Center awarded inXitu Inc. (formerly Microwave Power Technology), of Mountain View, California, a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to develop a new design of electron optics for forming and focusing electron beams that is applicable to a broad class of vacuum electron devices.
This project resulted in a compact and rugged X-ray tube with a carbon nanotube (CNT) cold cathode with a circular electron beam that is focused to a diameter of less than 80 microns. The performance, durability, and operating life of CNT cathodes was enhanced by inXitu working in cooperation with Ames; Oxford Instruments, of Scotts Valley, California; and Xintek Inc., of Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; among others. inXitu constructed an automated system for screening up to 10 CNT cathodes at once. Performance data from these tests helped CNT cathode researchers and developers improve tolerance to device processing, uniformity, and stability of performance within a given lot, enhancing performance of electron beam sources and ionizers in addition to other classes of X-ray tubes. This technology provides:

  • Inherently rugged and more efficient X-ray sources for material analysis
  • A miniature and rugged X-ray source for smaller rovers on future missions
  • Compact electron beam sources to reduce undesirable emissions from small, widely distributed pollution sources and remediation of polluted sites
  • Large area emitters for new X-ray sources in future baggage scanning systems

Researchers derived a mathematical distribution function for the beam with a purpose-built electron beam analyzer, which characterized the unique behavior of electron beams emitted from CNT cathodes. A boundary element computer incorporated the distribution function code to design the electron optics, with an electrostatically focused electron gun and magnetic lens to focus the electron. The final X-ray tube consists of rugged metal ceramic construction welded into a 2-inch-diameter package along with a 40 kV power supply. This design forms a hermetic package that can withstand severe environmental stresses encountered during launch, landing, and operation in space.

NASA will apply this technology in versatile X-ray instruments capable of operating in both a fluorescence or diffraction mode for in situ analysis of rocks and soils of the solid bodies in the solar system to determine their atomic constituents and mineralogy. Other applications of this technology include purifying air in space and Moon base stations, eliminating toxic products and biological toxins in aircraft, enhancing chemical reactions in space-based manufacturing, and sterilization of material to be returned to Earth or taken to space from Earth. inXitu was awarded a Phase III SBIR contract in 2006 to continue this work.

Product Outcome
Oxford’s X-ray Technology Group provides laboratory space and production support for continuing development and commercialization of advanced CNT-based vacuum sources. The company produced Eclipse 1 and Eclipse 2 X-ray sources from inXitu’s prototype that was used in hand-held and portable fluorescence spectrometers for in situ analysis of materials and surfaces. The Eclipse 2 X-ray tube was applied in equipment for monitoring paper coating and other high-speed processes.

Next-generation baggage and cargo screening systems employ CNT cold cathode X-ray sources, promising increased throughput, reduced false alarm rates, reduced power consumption, reduced heat load, reduced size and weight, and improved ruggedness and responsiveness over existing thermionic X-ray sources. Additional commercial applications include air purification; odor elimination; non-burning destruction of evaporated hydrocarbons from fuel tanks and painting operations; soil and groundwater remediation; flue gas cleaning; and chemical reaction enhancements, such as increasing fuel efficiency and reducing ink drying speed, as well as surface sterilization.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Insulating and protecting astronauts from temperature extremes, from the 3 K (-455 °F) of deep space to the 1,533 K (2,300 °F) of atmospheric reentry, is central to NASA’s human space flight program. While the space shuttle and capsule vehicles necessarily receive a great deal of thermal barrier and insulation protection, at least as much attention is also paid to astronaut clothing and personal gear. NASA has spent a great deal of effort developing and refining fire-resistant materials for use in vehicles, flight suits, and other applications demanding extreme thermal tolerances, and kept a close eye on the cutting edge of high-temperature stable polymers for its entire 50-year history.

altIn the late 1950s, Dr. Carl Marvel first synthesized Polybenzimidazole (PBI) while studying the creation of high-temperature stable polymers for the U.S. Air Force. In 1961, PBI was further developed by Marvel and Dr. Herward Vogel, correctly anticipating that the polymers would have exceptional thermal and oxidative stability. In 1963, NASA and the Air Force Materials Laboratory sponsored considerable work with PBI for aerospace and defense applications as a non-flammable and thermally stable textile fiber.

On January 27, 1967, the severity and immediacy of the danger of fire faced by astronauts was made terribly clear when a flash fire occurred in command module 012 during a launch pad test of the Apollo/Saturn space vehicle being prepared for the first piloted flight, the AS-204 mission (also known as Apollo 1). Three astronauts, Lieutenant Colonel Virgil I. Grissom, a veteran of Mercury and Gemini missions; Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. White II, the astronaut who had performed the first U.S. extravehicular activity during the Gemini program; and Lieutenant Commander Roger B. Chaffee, an astronaut preparing for his first space flight, died in this tragic accident.

A final report on the tragedy, completed in April 1967, made specific recommendations for major design and engineering modifications, including severely restricting and controlling the amount and location of combustible materials in the command module and the astronaut flight suits. NASA intensified its focus on advanced fire-resistant materials, and given the Agency’s existing familiarity with the fabric and its inventor, one of the first alternatives considered was PBI.

NASA contracted with Celanese Corporation, of New York, to develop a line of PBI textiles for use in space suits and vehicles. Celanese engineers developed heat- and flame-resistant PBI fabric based on the fiber for high-temperature applications. The fibers formed from the PBI polymer exhibited a number of highly desirable characteristics, such as inflammability, no melting point, and retention of both strength and flexibility after exposure to flame. The stiff fibers also maintained their integrity when exposed to high heat and were mildew, abrasion, and chemical resistant.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, PBI was instrumental to space flight, seeing application on Apollo, Skylab, and numerous space shuttle missions. Applications ran the gamut from the intended applications in astronaut flight suits and clothing, to webbing, tethers, and other gear that demanded durability and extreme thermal tolerance.

altProduct Outcome
In 1978, PBI was introduced to fire service in the United States, and Project FIRES (Firefighters Integrated Response Equipment System) lauded a recently developed outer shell material for turnout gear, PBI Gold. In 1983, PBI fibers were made commercially available and a dedicated production plant opened in Rock Hill, South Carolina, to meet demand. In 1986, NASA Spinoff chronicled this first phase of PBI’s history, and Marvel was awarded the “National Medal of Science” by President Ronald Reagan.
Since 1986, PBI has undergone a steady evolution into countless military and civilian applications and established a distinct profile and reputation in the fire retardant materials industry. In 2005, Celanese Corporation sold the PBI fiber and polymer business to PBI Performance Products Inc., of Charlotte, North Carolina, which is under the ownership of the InterTech Group, of North Charleston, South Carolina.

Produced by a dedicated manufacturer that takes great pride in the history and future of the product, the fabrics incorporating PBI have become prominent players in such diverse applications as firefighting and emergency response, motor sports, military, industry, and (still) aerospace. PBI Performance Products now offers two distinct lines: PBI, the original heat and flame resistant fiber; and Celazole, a family of high-temperature PBI polymers available in true polymer form.

  • PBI fabric withstands the dangers associated with firefighting, arc flash, and flash fire. In 1992, lightweight PBI fabrics were adapted for flame-resistant work wear for electric utility and petrochemical applications, and are now providing flame protection for U.S. Army troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Short-cut PBI fibers were introduced for use in automotive braking systems and PBI staple fibers are employed as fire blocking layers in aircraft seats.
  • PBI Gold blends 40 percent thermal-resistant PBI fibers with 60 percent high-strength aramid, resulting in a fabric which does not shrink, become brittle, or break open under extreme heat and flame exposure. PBI Gold provides firefighters and industrial workers with superior protection and meets or exceeds every National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and EN 469 (rating standard for protective clothing for firefighters) requirement. In 1994, the New York City Fire Department specified the use of PBI Gold fabric engineered in black for their turnout gear. Over the last 10 years, PBI Gold has grown internationally, with major industrial, military, and municipal fire brigades specifying the product across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific.
  • PBI Matrix employs a “power grid,” a durable matrix of high-strength aramid filaments woven into the PBI Gold fabric to enhance and reinforce its resistance to wear and tear while retaining its superior flame and heat protection. In 2003, PBI Matrix was commercialized and introduced in the United States as the next-generation PBI for firefighter turnout gear. In 2008, Matrix will be introduced in Europe.
  • PBI TriGuard fabric is a three-fiber blend of PBI, Lenzing FR, and MicroTwaron designed for flame protection, comfort, and durability. This advanced fabric meets or exceeds all U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and NFPA standards and is certified for wildlands, special operations, and motorsports applications, as well as the petrochemical, gas utility, and electric utility industries. PBI TriGuard and PBI Gold knits are now in use at several major motorsport racetracks around the country.
  • Celazole T-Series is a form-, shape-, and an injection-moldable blend of PBI and PEEK (polyetheretherketone) polymers.
  • Celazole U-Series utilizes PBI’s high-heat dimensional stability, strength, and chemical resistance to allow it to be formed into parts and used in the tools that produce flat panel displays and in the plasma etch chambers used to make semiconductor wafers.

New applications for PBI are continuing to come to light in new fields that demand material stability at high temperatures. PBI is now being developed into high-
temperature separation membranes that increase efficiency in ethanol production and separate carbon dioxide from natural gas for carbon dioxide sequestration, and will see application in hydrogen fuel cells. PBI in short-cut form has also been used as a safe and effective replacement for asbestos. Fittingly, PBI may also return to space as part of NASA’s Constellation Program, as the polymer once applied for space suits in the Apollo and Skylab missions is under consideration for use as insulation material in the rocket motors for NASA’s next generation of spacecraft, the Ares I and Ares V rockets.

PBI TriGuard™ is a trademark, and PBI Gold®, PBI Matrix®, and Celazole® are registered trademarks of PBI Performance Products Inc.
Lenzing FR® is a registered trademark of Lenzing Fibers GmbH.
MicroTwaron™ is a trademark of Akzo N.V.


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