• Question: how would you get you materials to stand out with incredible environments?

    Asked by matematika to Hollie on 7 Mar 2018.
    • Photo: Hollie Heard

      Hollie Heard answered on 7 Mar 2018:

      That is the question I’m always trying to answer! Ideally we want to find the best material for the specific environment, whether that be rocket thrusters, nuclear reactors, leading edges on planes, that ideally also has economic and environmental benefits. It is a long process to actually get new materials used, especially in space which can take decades! I’ll try to give you an answer that doesn’t take quite that long to read…….

      The first step is to understand what the environment is and the problems it has. So, whether it be a pipe carrying acids that would eat away at some materials causing it to leak or fail, or the inside of a rocket engine that has mixtures of chemicals and really high temperature, by realising what the issues are you can start to think of a solution. What you then want to do is list potential materials that may work in that environment based on their properties such as melting point, corrosion resistance, electrical conductivity, hardness etc……you can build up a list of candidates. A simple table with crosses and ticks for whether a material property meets the requirements is an easy first step of narrowing down your options. It’s also then necessary to consider other factors such as how much the material costs, where you can get it, how easily you can make/manufacture it and how you might join it to other materials. Once you’ve gotten down to one or two potential materials you can then start trying them on sample pieces. This may be coatings, (like I do), so that involves developing machinery and processes to produce them. It’s here you may also learn more about whether one material may join to another or whether the manufacturing process is suitable. For example, internal coating of things like rocket thrusters can’t be done by some methods as they rely on ‘line of sight’, essentially firing one material at another, but others that produce coatings from a gas/vapour can. This stage may also involve some basic analysis to understand the properties of the material and how it behaves.

      This stage is called a ‘feasibility study’, it is here you will decide whether a material really is suitable for the job or not. If not, you go back and try another one, if it is, you move into the next phase where you may move into producing actual parts and testing them in simulated environments, e.g. corrosion testing in acids. In this stage you want to demonstrate that the chosen material can withstand the environment and produce a prototype and have a production process that is understood, repeatable, and meets the requirements for cost and time.

      After this is when you might finally move into real world testing. Now, for things used in space this is called flight qualification testing and is only done after extensive simulated tests on/in Earth based equipment due to it being so expensive and the danger it could pose if something goes wrong. Hopefully though, much like the recent Falcon Heavy test launch, it works, even with some problems that you can learn from and adjust things as needed.

      Materials science can be a lot of trial and error and going in circles until you find the one thing that works. Or sometimes, it’s actually developing a new material because there aren’t any that are up to the task. It’s a fascinating area and one I love to study that can have huge benefits in all aspects of life. Part of what can make your material stand out is also you, in a competitive business world it can often be the person explaining that can sell you something as much as the actual product. A lot of that comes from the passion and belief you have in something that you have helped to create.

      I hope that makes sense! If you have any more questions let me know!