Chemical Engineers Tapped for new NASA Research Institute

Published: March 14, 2017

Carbon nanotube

This image shows how a carbon nanotube is structured. Professor Heinz's lab will use such carbon nanotubes as building blocks for lightweight, ultrastrong materials.

NASA has named CU Boulder as a partner in a first-of-its-kind $15 million research institute developing superstrong, lightweight materials for use in space exploration vehicles.

The agency announced the creation of two Space Technology Research Institutes in late February, dedicating $30 million over five years to develop new technologies for biomanufacturing and materials. The institutes are geared toward formulating cutting-edge materials for space missions – technologies that could also make tremendous impacts on Earth.

Chemical engineering Professor Hendrik Heinz is one of 14 research, industry and military partners involved with the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP). His lab will receive about $350,000 to perform computer simulations that test superior graphitic materials that are lightweight yet strong.

Graphene is a remarkable carbon building block much stronger than steel, one atomic layer thick, ultra-light, flexible and highly conductive. Scientists shape graphene into many different structures to create nanofibers, nanotubes and yarns or combine it with other materials to create composites and alloys. Stack millions of layers of graphene and you’ll get graphite, used in pencils.

Heinz’s research group will use state-of-the-art computer models to examine graphene-based materials at a miniscule scale, visualizing how individual atoms of these materials respond to force, heat or other factors – and how the materials might be improved.

“This is kind of an alchemy,” Heinz said. “You don’t really know what material combination to use for the best performance.”

While NASA’s aim is to create stronger, lighter space vehicles, any revelations uncovered by the project could one day apply to cars, aircraft, electronic devices, medicines and other products.

The project is led by Michigan Technological University and involves nine other universities, two industry partners and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in addition to CU Boulder.