By Elizabeth Myers
Imagine if a space craft could repair itself while still in orbit. Or if a collapsing building could tell first responders what areas were safe to go into. New Mexico State University’s College of Engineering has received an award from NASA that could make these possibilities a reality.
The NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) award will fund research on self-healing materials and structural health monitoring of aerospace structures. The proposal was one of 23 proposals chosen by NASA. The $744,144 award will fund the project for the next three years.
Co-principal investigator and mechanical engineering department head Tom Burton will be collaborating with professors at New Mexico Tech on the project. There will also be collaborators from NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“It’s in a field called structural health monitoring, which means we will be doing research on methods for conducting health monitoring of aerospace structures as well as determining damage in materials and damage in connections,” Burton said.
“One component of the project is to develop some materials that are self-healing, which means when there’s damage they have a means to repair the damage.”
NMSU will handle structural damage issues and modeling techniques, while researchers at Tech will work on self-healing materials, micro-scale work and structural health modeling.
The proposals sent to NASA needed to address not just research relevant to NASA’s mission, but also the areas of workforce and economic development.
“The EPSCoR program is designed to help states develop their space research capability and capacity,” said Patricia Hynes, director of the NASA EPSCoR and New Mexico Space Grant Consortium at NMSU.
“The proposal develops a capability for the nation in that it detects cracks in air-frame structures and then researches a system to autonomously heal those cracks. This is a useful application of technology for both commercial and government aeronautics and space programs,” Hynes said.
“So for example, Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque might have use for some of the sensor and detection systems that we’re developing through this proposal to integrate into the construction of their commercial aircraft. Virgin Galactic on the other hand, might have use for a different type of detector because of different stress conditions of launch and reentry on the vehicles they’re developing out at Spaceport America.”
Part of EPSCoR’s purpose is to involve the entire research community of New Mexico, Hynes said, and the research will eventually include the University of New Mexico as well. “UNM and New Mexico Tech are always excellent research partners of ours,” Hynes said.
Applications in aerospace structure repair also include aircraft repair. Finding ways to economically detect stress cracks in critical components of the frame or skin of an aircraft would improve passenger and crew safety, Hynes said.
Developing the technology for commercial use in the $60 billion a year aeronautics and aviation business would fulfill the EPSCoR program’s intent for increasing economic development in the state, Hynes said.
Researchers at Tech also foresee applications in homeland security and deeper oil drilling with sensor systems that can monitor structural integrity, allowing people to temporarily prevent building collapse, or self-healing materials that can repair drilling machinery underground.
The award will also benefit students in the NMSU College of Engineering. “One of the requirements that we had to meet with in the proposal was to explain in our workforce development plan how we were going to involve underrepresented groups that are traditionally left out of technical areas,” Hynes said.
Hynes described under-representation of women and minorities as a persistent problem across the nation. Involving students in research projects helps recruit and retain all students, Hynes said. Additionally, working on funded research is a way to prepare students for the workforce.
Working in teams that reach across different engineering disciplines is a valuable job-skill preparation exercise, Hynes said. Chemical engineers will be involved with those specializing in materials, and mechanical and electrical engineers will determine how to set up detectors and how testing can be performed. Computer engineers will monitor testing as well as the detectors within the structure, Hynes said.
“These are very common situations that occur in industry. NMSU has a superior reputation for its ability to prepare students for the workforce. This is one more project that we can add to the portfolio of many excellent research programs going on in the state of New Mexico, said Hynes.
“This is our aerospace engineering program’s first large research proposal that we’ve acquired from NASA, and it is a big morale boost for our fledgling program. We’re very fortunate to have the leadership that we do in the College of Engineering with Dr. Burton and the team he’s developing, and we look forward to leveraging more research from this award,” Hynes said.
The students also get to the opportunity to work with NASA contractors and others in the industry, Hynes said. “We’ve been very fortunate in our relationship with NASA over the years. Universities are the backbone of our dominance and pre-eminence in space and NASA will continue to work with universities in the foreseeable future.”