Measurement devices that can withstand the acid rains on Venus, radiation in space, and the heat of car engines are being developed to improve research in these extreme environments. Researchers are developing electronics that are resistant to heat, corrosion, and radiation — starting with nanoscale slices of material.
One hurdle to studying extreme environments is the heat. Silicon-based semiconductors that power smartphones and laptops stop working at about 300 °C. As they heat up, the metal parts begin to melt into neighboring semiconductors, and don’t move electricity as efficiently. To overcome this temperature barrier, the team created an atoms-thick, heat-resistant layer that can coat devices and allow them to work at up to 600 °C in air.
The team is working to improve these nano devices by testing materials at temperatures of up to 900 °C. For space electronics, it’s a key step in understanding how they survive for long periods of time. Although a device might not be exposed to such temperature extremes in space, the test conditions rapidly age materials, indicating how long they could last.
The team tests materials and nano devices they create either in-house in high-temperature probe stations, or in a Venus simulator at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH. That simulator mimics the pressure, chemistry, and temperature of Venus.
More than just surviving on Venus, getting there is important, too. Objects in space are pounded by a flurry of gamma and proton radiation that knocks atoms around and degrades materials. Preliminary work demonstrates that sensors they’ve developed could survive up to 50 years of radiation bombardment while in Earth’s orbit.
The research was fueled by the team’s interest in understanding car engines. Inside an engine, temperatures reach up to 1000 °C, and the outer surface of a piston is 600 °C. Current technology to monitor and optimize engine performance can’t handle this heat, introducing error because measuring devices must be placed far away from the pistons. Electronics designed to survive the intense conditions of space could be placed next to the engine’s pistons to directly monitor performance and improve efficiency.