Look Ma -- No Hands!
Look Ma -- No Hands! Using a force field to float molten test samples
precisely in mid-air, NASA's Electrostatic Levitator creates
a unique environment for space-age materials processing.
April 23, 2001 -- Right before your eyes, floating in mid-air with no visible means of support or containment, is a molten glob of glowing metal. Scientists gather around, talking excitedly, observing and recording their measurements. Unlike the hovering sample, however, the onlookers aren't floating. Gravity holds them firmly to the ground.
What makes the metal float? Have these scientists converged on a magic show?
No, it's not hocus-pocus. This is the Electrostatic Levitator (ESL) at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, AL -- a unique facility for experiments with space-age materials.
The ESL provides a unique way to test substances without touching a container or crucible that would contaminate the sample. It is used to examine metals, ceramics and glass compounds in a hot or cool liquid state. The answers that Dr. Jan Rogers, ESL Project Scientist, and her colleagues in MSFC's Microgravity Materials Science Group derive from their tests teach fundamental facts about many kinds of materials.
"To create new materials for both earthbound and space technologies, we must understand the physical properties that govern how substances and their ingredients behave," Rogers explains. "Studies being done on metal and ceramic materials in a liquid state in the ESL cover a wide range of characteristics. We need to gather data on the stability of their molten surface, the density and flow of the liquid materials, their capacity to absorb and release heat, and how they solidify. We study some quite special phenomena such as undercooling and nucleation."
Undercooling describes how far below its normal freezing point a material will stay liquid -- and whether or not it forms nuclei and crystallizes when it cools. Some metals stay in an amorphous non-crystalline form when they re-solidify and become a highly useful new kind of material called metallic glass.
"Precise determination of all these properties is very difficult when materials are tested in a container," notes Rogers, "because anything that holds a molten sample will alter the results and observations by interacting with it physically or chemically."
The ESL uses static electricity to suspend an object inside a vacuum chamber. While the sample is levitated, a laser beam heats the sample until it melts so scientists can measure its physical properties without any interference from a container.
Above: The heart of the ESL is the vacuum chamber (right) containing a pair of electrostatic plates and four electrodes that position the sample being processed (left). The sample's position is determined from the shadows cast on detectors as two lasers shine at right angles through the vacuum chamber onto the sample.
Two horizontal electrode plates electrically charge the sample and repel it upward until it balances between them. The sample is positioned horizontally by two smaller pairs of electrodes. A high-power deuterium arc lamp shines on the sample to replace the electrical charge that the sample loses as it emits electrons while hot. Digital feedback controls the system, using lasers to calculate subtle changes in the electrode charges and recentering the sample so it remains in the path of the heating laser -- although experiments can also be run without laser heating.
At present the power of the electrostatic levitators is limited, so samples can be no more than 3 mm (0.12 in) in diameter and weigh 30-40 mg. However, according to Rogers, several investigators are using the electrostatic levitation data to develop processes and devices to handle bulk quantities of materials.
The ESL is used by the NASA team and also by university and corporation investigators selected through the NASA Research Announcement (NRA) program, which solicits guest investigators to use NASA facilities and resources. NRAs announce research interests in support of NASA's programs and identify proposals to be funded from among competitive project ideas conceived by the respondents. NRA selections may result in grants, contracts or cooperative agreements. NASA supports ESL experiments on Earth in gravity conditions and also as Flight Definition Projects to be carried out on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.
Right: The logo of MSFC's ESL Facility implies the magical quality of levitating samples for observation.
Scientists can also propose to use the ESL through Advanced Technology Development agreements, which are reserved for promising high-risk research.
"Our ESL containerless processing facility is the only national laboratory available for selected investigators to run such experiments with a variety of metal and ceramic compounds," Rogers states. "Our goal is to provide a place where investigators from both the public and private sectors can focus on creating new materials and new applications based on the materials data we have developed."
The Marshall Space Flight Center hosts visiting investigators during their ESL processing sessions. Typical visits last from one to two weeks. Investigators provide material samples, known data on sample properties, an experiment plan and occasionally some of their own data-gathering instrumentation. The ESL facility staff works with investigators as experiments are performed.
In the year 2000, NASA selected 65 researchers to receive grants in the field of Microgravity Materials Science -- totaling approximately $22 million for earthbound and space experiments over a four-year period.
In addition to the many NASA-funded ground-based ESL research projects, there are now four ESL Flight Definition Projects in progress with three universities and one corporation:
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA -- Prof. Merton C. Flemings: "The Role of Convection and Growth Competition on Phase Selection in Microgravity" -- which addresses how movements in a suspended liquid sample and the growth of competing crystals within it affect each phase of a material's changes from liquid to solid state in the low-gravity of space.
- California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA -- Prof. William L. Johnson: "Physical Properties and Processing of Metallic Glass Undercooled Alloys" -- which looks at many aspects of metallic glass, or "liquid metal", alloys formed in microgravity.
- Washington University at St. Louis, St. Louis, MO -- Prof. Kenneth F. Kelton: "Studies of Nucleation and Growth, Specific Heat and Viscosity of Undercooled Melts of Quasicrystals and Polytetrahedral-Phase-Forming Alloys" -- a study of several characteristics of undercooled solid alloys created by specific kinds of crystal formation.
- Containerless Research Inc., Evanston, IL -- Dr. Richard Weber: "Microgravity Studies of Liquid-liquid Phase Transitions in Undercooled Alumina-Yttria Melts" -- experiments in how certain substances form from undercooling of melted glass and oxide materials.
NASA's marvelous Electrostatic Levitator may not actually be magic, but the discoveries that come from its use in these many diverse studies are certain to be continually amazing!
The ESL was developed by Loral Space Systems of Palo Alto, California, and donated to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, in 1998.
MSFC's ESL facility complements research with NASA/Marshall's Drop Tube Facility and spaceflight facilities such as the TEMPUS electromagnetic levitation furnace flown in 1997 on a Space Shuttle "Spacelab" mission. ESL holds material samples in full view of the detectors for several minutes at a time, but they are still under the effects of Earth gravity. Drop Tube experiments are truly weightless, but only for less than five seconds, and the samples quickly fall past detectors. TEMPUS and other orbital facilities allow weightless experiments for long periods, but must be scheduled years in advance.
The MSFC ESL facility is supported by NASA's Microgravity Materials Science Research Project Office.Web Links
It Floats -- -- Science@NASA article: NASA scientists float materials in a vacuum with static electricity using device donated by Loral Space Systems.
MSFC's Electrostatic Levitator Facility (ELF) provides new insights into the properties of materials.
NASA's Research Announcement (NRA) program invites proposals for -- and funds -- research projects on Earth and in space by universities, foundations and corporations.
TEMPUS -- The Electromagnetic Containerless Processing Facility called "TEMPUS" (short for "Tiegelfreies Elektromagnetisches Prozessieren Unter Schwerelosigkeit" -- a German acronym that means "containerless electromagnetic processing in weightlessness") has been created and flown in space by Germany's space research agency, DLF, and NASA.
Follow the Bouncing Ball to Improved Metals -- Science@NASA article: The TEMPUS space furnace takes its second space flight on the international MSL-1 Space Lab mission to test metals using electromagnetic levitation.
Liquidmetal Golf -- An application of a particular new metalic glass.
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|For lesson plans and educational activities related to breaking science news, please visit Thursday's Classroom||Author: Gil Knier|
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