NASA Awards Major Grant to Kentucky Engineers and Scientists for Space Research

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International Space Station
NASA has awarded a major grant to the University of Kentucky for a research project that will take place, in part, aboard the International Space Station, but which could yield knowledge with imminently useful applications here on Earth.

The project, a collaboration with scientists and engineers from the University of Louisville and Western Kentucky University, will conduct fundamental physics experiments on colloids, mixtures in which microscopic particles of one substance are suspended within another substance and remain evenly distributed throughout.

The International Space Station is what makes this research possible, says Suzanne Smith, the project’s managing principal investigator. Researchers will take advantage of the space station’s micro-gravity environment to perform experiments that cannot be performed accurately on the planet’s surface because of the influence of gravity.

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“ISS orbits Earth every one and a half hours and its laboratory facilities allow scientists, including researchers right here in Kentucky, to make new discoveries and prove scientific theories,” said Smith, UK’s Donald and Gertrude Lester Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the NASA Kentucky Space Grant and EPSCoR Programs.

Insights into colloidal physics and self-assembly processes are needed to develop new materials with enhanced energy, thermal, optical, chemical and mechanical properties. Potential applications include more efficient solar energy panels, stronger and lighter aerospace materials, and less expensive electronic displays, both for space-related and terrestrial usage.

The project is a significant opportunity for Kentucky, says Stuart J. Williams, the project’s principal scientific investigator.

“It allows researchers from three area universities to collaborate and strengthen the overall research profile with respect to colloidal research in the state," said Williams, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at U of L. "The International Space Station provides a unique environment that will yield insight into the physics of colloidal interactions, which is important for the development of the next generation of sophisticated materials.”

The project, titled “Influence of Gravity on Electrokinetic and Electrochemical Colloidal Self-Assembly for Future Materials,” has a $750,000 award contribution from NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research with $300,000 additional matching funds from the NASA Kentucky EPSCoR Program.