Anyone who owns a tire, toothbrush or water bottle knows how practical plastics are. Engineers know this, too. Plastics are inexpensive, strong and easy to make.
One application for plastics, however, is truly out of this world.
Plastics have enormous potential in space. It can cost $5,000 or more per pound to launch an object into orbit, according to Nature Portfolio. A lightweight material, plastics could theoretically replace some metals in space technology. This may also enable spacecraft to carry more fuel.
A major obstacle to this innovation is the extreme radiation present in space. Radiation can severely damage plastics. It's a challenge that Ph.D. student Kazue Orikasa of FIU's College of Engineering and Computing is taking up.
Through a NASA research fellowship, Orikasa is working on a way to make strong plastic-based materials with high thermal stability that can withstand extreme radiation. Her plan is to combine plastics with nanomaterials, extremely small materials thinner than a fraction of a human hair, to make a combined material known as a composite.
"These composites could be used to shield electronics from radiation exposure," Orikasa says. "If radiation reaches electronics, it can interrupt signal processing.”
Orikasa is making the composites at Professor Arvind Agarwal’s Plasma Forming Laboratory and testing them at a NASA radiation testing facility.
“Kazue is an absolutely brilliant person,” says Agarwal, chair of FIU’s department of mechanical and materials engineering. “Making a single material that is resistant to radiation while being durable and lightweight is not easy. In the end, combining these qualities could elongate the lifetime of materials that we send to space.”
By using nanomaterials, Orikasa has the potential to significantly bolster plastic’s defenses against radiation. These nanomaterials could also make plastic materials more durable and better at handling electricity and heat.
“One nanomaterial, graphene, has a theoretical strength much higher than any other material on Earth. Much higher than diamonds, or anything,” Orikasa says.
In reality, adding nanomaterials - in this case, graphene and boron nitride - to plastics can be incredibly difficult.
“When you mix nanomaterials and plastics, the nanomaterials create clumps. It’s like when you use powder to make chocolate milk and the powder creates blobs,” Orikasa says.
Unlike chocolate milk, extra stirring doesn’t help nanomaterials mix evenly into plastic, Orikasa says. This is where her innovation comes into play.
Orikasa is working on a process that will combine nanomaterials and plastic in a controlled, consistent way. It's a process she cannot yet disclose.
Orikasa’s name is listed as a co-inventor on one patent application and one recently issued patent related to materials engineering.