NASA Spinoff

Anyone who has made a paper airplane knows that folding the wingtips upward makes your plane look better and fly farther, though the reasons for the latter might be a mystery. The next time you snag a window seat on an airline flight, check out the plane’s wing. There is a good chance the tip of the wing will be angled upward, almost perpendicular. Or it might bend smoothly up like the tip of an eagle’s wing in flight. Though obviously more complex, these wing modifications have the same aerodynamic function as the folded wingtips of a paper airplane. More than an aesthetically pleasing design feature, they are among aviation’s most visible fuel-saving, performance-enhancing technologies.

The next time you blow out a candle, watch how the smoke behaves. You will see that it rises first in an even stream. At a certain point, that stream begins to break up into swirls and eddies as the smoke disperses.

Every time a jet engine is started, it goes through a thermal cycle of extreme temperatures, reaching as high as 2,700 °F within the engine’s combustor. Over time, the expansion and contraction of engine parts caused by this cycle lead to cracking and degradation that shortens an engine’s lifespan and eventually necessitates costly replacement.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

While working on designs for a new high-speed aircraft, a group of software engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center developed a program that helps create lighter weight vehicles, while still maintaining strength and structural integrity. Part of the National Aerospace Plane project, the software was necessary to allow designers to easily experiment with new materials and structures, trying a variety of different options for building what would have been the world’s fastest aircraft, the X-30—capable of taking off from an airport in Washington, DC, accelerating to over 20 times the speed of sound, and landing in Tokyo in under 2 hours.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Researchers at the Advanced Materials and Processing Branch at Langley Research Center created a superior polyimide foam as insulation for reusable cryogenic propellant tanks on the space shuttle. At the time, the foam insulation on the tanks had a limited lifetime: one launch, which did not suit NASA’s need for reusable launch systems.

The foam on the shuttle’s external tanks needed to insulate the super-cooled liquid propellant, preventing ice from forming on the tanks and surrounding areas and posing catastrophic risk from debris during launch. The insulation also needed to be able to withstand the high temperatures that the tanks would experience during ignition and launch. The researchers named their new foam TEEK.

A partnership with a small business in Florida improved the chemical structure of the NASA-developed foam, leading to a new product, FPF-44 with commercial applications in the boat-building business, as well as further applications within the Space Program. The partnership also earned NASA scientists, Roberto J. Cano, Brian J. Jensen, and Erik S. Weiser, as well as their industry counterpart, Juan Miguel Vazquez, the coveted designation of “NASA Commercial Invention of the Year.”


A small Hialeah, Florida-based business, PolyuMAC Inc., was looking for advanced foams to use in the customized manufacturing of acoustical and thermal insulation. PolyuMAC is a state-of-the-art manufacturer of foams for use in the marine industry. One of the company’s customers had requested newer, advanced materials for use on U.S. Navy ships. The goal, then, was to find an advanced, insulating material—lighter weight, manufacturable in-house, easy to work with, increased insulating capabilities, and affordable. The hunt was on for better foam.


During this search, Juan Miguel Vazquez, new product development lead as well as founder and president of PolyuMAC, came across information about the TEEK foam developed at Langley. Vazquez read about TEEK and contacted Langley for samples and technical data sheets.

He reviewed the materials and began his own testing, investigating the foam’s properties. He determined, however, that TEEK was not the right density for his needed applications, and furthermore, producing the material in the large quantities he needed would have been cost-prohibitive. Rather than dismiss the endeavor altogether, though, he contacted the inventors and asked for help tweaking the TEEK chemistry to bring it more in line with his company’s needs. They agreed, and he licensed the foam from NASA to begin the modifications. After multiple visits between the company’s laboratory and the NASA field center, the researchers had made the foam lighter in weight and cheaper to produce. They named this new generation of foam FPF-44, and the patent is now held by the three Langley scientists and Vazquez. NASA tested FPF-44 at the White Sands Test Facility, a rocket test site in the dunes of New Mexico operated by the Johnson Space Center. There, scientists simulated launch facility conditions to test for ice mitigation on the liquid oxygen feedline on the space shuttle’s external fuel tank. The specific goal was to prove that FPF-44 was a viable option for addressing a chief safety concern—a gap between the liquid oxygen feedline and the external tank support brackets, which is exposed to cryogenic temperatures, allowing moisture to collect on the oxygen tank and turn to ice. During tanking, de-tanking, and launch, the feedline articulates, opening and closing the small gap. The insulation needed to be flexible to allow for the articulation of the exposed metal parts to prevent ice from forming. The Langley-PolyuMAC team thermal-formed the foam into the exact shape needed for that gap, with added flexibility to keep it in place and prevent damage when the feedline moved. The success of this test makes it a candidate for future shuttle applications and insulation on next-generation space vehicles. The NASA-PolyuMAC team is continuing to collaborate on the foam, trying to further reduce density while maintaining its insulating properties. Future applications could include the next generation of commercial aircraft. Commercial aircraft, which currently use fiberglass as an acoustic sound absorber, could perhaps benefit from the next-generation foam, since it has improved handle-ability while providing the same—if not improved—insulating qualities. The test will be if the scientists can lower the density of the foam enough to make it a compelling alternative and if they can develop manufacturing processes capable of accommodating the scale and quantity necessary to infiltrate the large commercial aircraft industry.

Product Outcome

Commercial production of the joint NASA-PolyuMAC foam began in summer 2007, with the company marketing the foam under the trade name Polyshield. The commercialized version offers the same qualities as the NASA next-generation, high performance, flexible polyimide foam, and shows promise for use on watercraft, aircraft, spacecraft, electronics and electrical products, automobiles and automotive products, recreation equipment, and building and construction materials.

alt Consumers appreciate its flame retardant qualities, thermal insulation and acoustic insulation factors, and the weight reduction it provides, but the chief advantage Polyshield has over the TEEK foam is that it is roughly one-fifth the cost to manufacture. The durable polyimide foam is formed at room temperature and then cured using large microwaves, which reduces costs and increases the company’s production rates. The finished product can be flexible or rigid, structural or non-structural, and is always highly durable. This affordable insulating foam can also be applied to gaskets and seals, vibration damping pads, spacers in adhesives and sealants, extenders, and flow-leveling aids.

The products provide excellent insulation for sound, cryogenics, and heat, and can be used for fire protection. In fact, one of the chief advantages of this material is that, while it holds at very high temperatures, if it does burn, it will not produce smoke or harmful byproducts, a critical concern on boats, submarines, airplanes, and other contained environments.

While the company has the capacity to thermal-form the material into any shape required by clients, it typically provides sheets of the foam to customers, who then cut and shape it as needed for their specific applications. The user can then cover it with various cloths. PolyuMAC will, on demand, make specially fitted shapes, and densities can be tailored according to the intended use.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Spacecraft and aerospace engines share a common threat: high temperature. The temperatures experienced during atmospheric reentry can reach over 2,000 °F, and the temperatures in rocket engines can reach well over 5,000 °F.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

While many air travelers are accustomed to rules against electronic devices during takeoff and landing, they might not be aware that these devices are banned because they can cause electromagnetic interference (EMI) with navigation equipment. Because similar problems can occur near launch sites for space missions, NASA began investigating technologies for tracking this interference in order to protect sensitive mission instrumentation. This electronic encroachment is partly due to a myriad of modern communication devices in the marketplace, but unfortunately could also be due to intentional and malicious transmissions. Uninterrupted communication between range activities, mission control, and the flight deck is critical to human safety and mission security, so NASA worked with a company that develops custom communication systems to design a system for locating sources of radio interference.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

As part of its research to make air travel safer, NASA began collaborating with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2005 to develop what are now called surface traffic management systems (STMS). Both agencies have expressed a need to gather and organize data on airport surface operations, the management of all airport vehicle activities on or near runways, including the movement of aircraft, baggage vans, fuel trucks, catering vehicles, security personnel, and any other ground traffic. STMS continuously record data to determine the position of aircraft using a transponder signal, GPS onboard the aircraft, or primary radar. These surface surveillance systems, which report locations every second for thousands of air and ground vehicles, generate massive amounts of data, making gathering and analyzing this information difficult. To record and help analyze airport operations data with the eventual goal of automating airport ground traffic, NASA sought assistance from private industry.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

A small pile of PETI-330 resinous powder PETI-330 is the first resin created specifically for high-temperature composites formed with resin transfer molding and resin infusion. Offering processability, toughness, and high-temperature performance, the resin has a low-melt viscosity and, when cured, a high glass transition temperature.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Designers use computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to gain greater understanding of the fluid flow phenomena involved in components being designed. They also use finite element analysis (FEA) as a tool to help gain greater understanding of the structural response of components to loads, stresses and strains, and the prediction of failure modes.

Automated CFD and FEA engineering design has centered on shape optimization, which has been hindered by two major problems: 1) inadequate shape parameterization algorithms, and 2) inadequate algorithms for CFD and FEA grid modification.

Working with software engineers at Stennis Space Center, a NASA commercial partner, Optimal Solutions Software LLC, was able to utilize its revolutionary, one-of-a-kind arbitrary shape deformation (ASD) capability—a major advancement in solving these two aforementioned problems—to optimize the shapes of complex pipe components that transport highly sensitive fluids.

The ASD technology solves the problem of inadequate shape parameterization algorithms by allowing the CFD designers to freely create their own shape parameters, therefore eliminating the restriction of only being able to use the computer-aided design (CAD) parameters.

The problem of inadequate algorithms for CFD grid modification is solved by the fact that the new software performs a smooth volumetric deformation. This eliminates the extremely costly process of having to remesh the grid for every shape change desired. The program can perform a design change in a markedly reduced amount of time, a process that would traditionally involve the designer returning to the CAD model to reshape and then remesh the shapes, something that has been known to take hours, days—even weeks or months—depending upon the size of the model.

Optimal Solutions Software (OSS) LLC, of Provo, Utah, and Idaho Falls, Idaho, creates highly innovative engineering design improvement products to enable engineers to more reliably, creatively, and economically design new products in high-value markets.

The company entered into a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with Stennis, under which it extensively used its ASD software to improve pressure loss, velocity, and flow quality in the pipes utilized by NASA. The product is available under the trade name Sculptor.

Because of the funding from the SBIR program and the technical contributions from its NASA counterparts, OSS was able to take the technological know-how and commercial successes gained from this project and effectively commence the next-phase step into the marketplace.

According to Mark Landon, OSS’s president, “We thoroughly enjoyed working with the engineers and scientists at Stennis—they were technically very sound and extremely helpful in every aspect of the success of the project. Additionally, with the technical and funding assistance from this program, OSS was able to create new jobs, our revenue figures and sales have increased, and private investors are looking at us at this time to take us to the next stage on our road
to commercialization.”

Implementing Sculptor’s ASD technology and optimizer during the Stennis SBIR Phase II test case, OSS demonstrated a steady-state optimized resistance temperature device (RTD), which produced a smaller and more symmetrical wake, resulting in a lower drag coefficient, thus a lower moment at the base of the RTD. Remarkably, because of the aerodynamic drag reduction from the shape optimization, there was a 60 percent reduction in moment at the base of the RTD probe.

NASA applications for Sculptor include the design of spacecraft shapes; aircraft shapes; propulsion devices (nozzles, combustion chambers, etc.); pumps; valves; fittings; and other components.

With the assistance from programs such as the SBIR program, the company continues to expand its product family and add features so that its customers can create breakthrough designs and realize increased efficiency gains.

Product Outcome
Sculptor can be applied to almost any fluid dynamics problem, structural analysis problem, acoustics design, electromagnetic design, or any area where the designer needs to be able to address complex design analysis. The program performs smooth volumetric deformation and can institute design changes in seconds.

OSS has sold a license for Sculptor to Eglin Air Force Base for the design of unmanned aircraft drones and miniature aircraft. The company has also sold a license for the software to the U.S. Navy for use with Combustion Research and Flow Technology Inc., the author of the CRUNCH CFD code, a multi-element, unstructured flow solver for viscous, real gas systems, currently in use for cavitation modeling, turbo machinery applications, and large eddy simulation.

OSS has also teamed with Engineous Software Inc., the author of the iSIGHT optimization software, to subcontract on a Phase I SBIR with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to use Sculptor to provide the shape deformation and shape matching for fluid structure interaction solutions. Wright-Patterson has also purchased a Sculptor license for application to aircraft shape design.

Since Sculptor can be utilized in any instance where there is fluid (gas or liquid) flowing in, around, or through an object, the applications are nearly countless.
Automotive shapes and parts such as aerodynamics of the body itself, mirrors, internal flow components such as intake manifolds, radiators, exhaust manifolds, cylinders, and air conditioning ducts all benefit from this program.

The motor sports industry is currently a big customer, with many racing teams finding a competitive edge by using Sculptor to reduce drag, improve down forces, improve engine design, and perform other design analyses, such as for brake cooling, basic flow handling, and internal combustion components.

Other sports are showing a deep interest in the Sculptor technology for such activities as golf club design, swimming and boating aerodynamics—even model airplane flight efficiencies.

Also showing great promise for using these tools are other industries such as biomedicine, which can utilize its ability to more quickly predict the effect of shape
(anatomical) changes in the body’s vascular and other bodily systems.

To expand its domestic and worldwide presence, OSS has established a powerful distribution network, which covers North America, all of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and China.

Sculptor™ is a trademark of Optimal Solutions Software LLC.
Crunch CFD® is a registered trademark of Combustion Research and Flow Technology Inc.
iSIGHT™ is a trademark of Engineous Software Inc.


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