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Swiss super material research takes place in earth orbit

Swiss super material research takes place in earth orbit

Tokyo (SCCIJ) – The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) will investigate a new super material on the International Space Station together with researchers from Neuchâtel and Ulm: droplets of glowing metallic glass.

Swiss super material research takes place in earth orbit

Zero gravity: Scientists during a melting test in the Zero-GAirbus of the company Novespace (Image: © Airbus Defence and Space).

Dream material

It has the color of white gold, is hard like quartz glass, and exhibits high elasticity. The smooth surface makes the material resistant to salts or acids. Individual pieces – for medical implants, for example – can be produced using 3D printing, larger parts – for watch cases, for example – are manufactured using injection molding. This dream material is called “bulk metallic glass”.

In a few months, the production of such materials will be studied in the microgravity of the International Space Station. A group of researchers with Empa participation has prepared the samples and registered them with the European Space Agency ESA for space flight. PX Group from La Chaux-de-Fonds supplies the special alloy. This company produces materials for the watch and dental industry.

Antonia Neels, head of Empa’s Center for X-ray Analytics, has been working on this mysterious material for about 15 years. The team includes Markus Mohr and Hans-Jörg Fecht from the Institute of Functional Nanosystems at the University of Ulm and Roland Logé from the Laboratory of Thermomechanical Metallurgy at EPFL in Neuchâtel. This group studies metallic glass consisting of palladium, copper, nickel, and phosphorus.

Parabolic flight in the Airbus

The production is not entirely simple: Compared to window glass, the specially selected metal alloys must be cooled up to a hundred times faster so that the metal atoms do not form crystalline structures. One possible way out of the dilemma is 3D printing using a process known as powder bed process. A fine powder of the desired alloy is heated for a few milliseconds with a laser. The metal grains fuse with their neighbors to form a kind of foil.

But material samples from the 3D laser printer alone cannot completely solve the puzzle of metallic glasses. Important information is provided by thermo-physical parameters of the melt, such as viscosity and surface tension. Experiments on the ISS offer ideal conditions for these analyses. Preliminary experiments take place in parabolic flights. As early as 2019, the first droplets of metallic glass floated on an experimental basis. A specially converted Airbus A310 from the company Novespace flew a zero-gravity flight with a material sample.

But the time of microgravity during parabolic flights lasts only 20 seconds – too little for a detailed analysis. That can only be done on the International Space Station where an electromagnetic levitation furnace has been installed since 2014. 18 material samples will go to space and will be observed by researchers on Earth via video stream. The metallic glass from Switzerland will go into orbit with the next batch of samples.

Text: Rainer Klose/Empa (editing by SCCIJ)

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