Although NASA has sent many missions to Mars, it is not a thing yet. This is something the agency hopes to change – and it’s working on the technology needed to make it happen. These innovations are already paying off on Earth, including a new development on a well-known material that can now be used to sew hearts during surgery.
For NASA, “The mission to return samples from Mars has been at the top of the planetary science mission list for some time,” says Andy Spry, who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) during this project and is now the chief scientist at the SETI (Searching for Intelligence) institute. Extraterrestrial) and supports NASA’s Office of Planet Protection.
“Instead of being constrained by the restrictions on the amount of devices we can deliver to Mars, we can apply all the devices, all knowledge on Earth, to the Mars sample that was returned,” he says.
But any sample tray needs a strong seal, both to prevent Earth’s atmosphere from contaminating the sample, and to protect Earth from any potential pollution from Mars.
“The problem is that when you get a sample, it’s usually very dirty,” explains engineer Scott Stanley. “Digging into the rock, you pollute everything around you with debris.” If the Martian dust gets everywhere, the lid may not close properly.
Stanley was the vice president of technology at a small company called Techno Planet Inc. , Works on a seal, based on a NASA award, that aims for a leak rate “measured at the molecular level, in terms of what goes in and out is recollected.” There is no seal in existence that can meet that in a polluted environment.
He wanted to use a “knife edge stamping”, in which the edge of the stainless steel case’s base was cut into a soft metal, in this case the indium that fills the lip around the cap. However, if the “knife edge” is covered in dirt, this may get stuck in the soft metal, leaving gaps and preventing clogging.
Stanley had a scheme: a barrier layer covering the soft metal. When the rim is pushed through this bulkhead, it will be wiped clean.
The problem was, Stanley says, “I’ve been very limited in terms of material choices according to the requirements of the science. “Among other requirements, I need something that qualifies for use in space, that does not emit a gas that can contaminate a sample, and can be completely sterilized before launch.” The only material that I could use was some form of PTFE or polytetrafluoroethylene, which is more commonly known. In the name of Teflon.
While most people are familiar with Teflon as a non-stick coating for pots and pans, the material has other uses and forms. Initially, Stanley thought he would make the septum on his seal from expanded PTFE tape (ePTFE).
To that end, Stanley turned to Zeus in Orangeburg, South Carolina, using funding from a small business innovation research contract awarded to him by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the project. However, when the company sent in samples, they didn’t work as Stanley had hoped.
“The ePTFE, before the knife could cut it, the soft metal for stamping began to press out from the bottom,” he says, even after prototypes and multiple tests.
But Zeus was not ready to give up. The ePTFE tape is made through a straightening process – the PTFE is expanded and then flattened to make it thinner and stronger, but that also makes it stiffer, says Global Market Manager Jason Fante. “Basically, we needed to preserve the preferred properties but lose the side effects to make them stiffer.”
They decide to abandon the calendar approach and try to create an ePTFE bar in a different way: By tossing a large diameter, “Kind of Like a Play-Doh Fun Factory”, Fant jokes.
PTFE starts out as a powder, Global Business Development Manager Wayne Black explains, and the company creates unique withdrawals with this powder. PTFE powder is compressed at high pressures into a “shape” at ambient temperature. This molding is then forced under high pressure through a final die into a dedicated extruder to create the final part, ”says Black. By creating different heat treatment zones,“ we can extend the material to give it unique properties. ”
The ePTFE extruded tape worked, and Stanley was happy. “Zeus was cool – it’s a huge company, and here they are running these little coaches for me,” he recalls.
It was a huge investment of development time and a dollar for what was a very small sale to Stanley – but Zeus says it paid off. Altogether, she says, sales have increased in PTFE tape, with both ePTFE and PTFE extruded together, in double digits, with about a 50 to 60 percent increase in the types of applications the tape is used for.
So what are those apps? There is a lot, says Black, but one of the most surprising – and life-saving – things is in the human body.
“This material is unique, because it is soft, flexible, and strong – it is also biocompatible. It is a substance that can interact safely in the body and can be safely implanted in the body,” notes Black.
One of the products Zeus sells is extruded ePTFE yarns. “Let’s say you had a heart condition that would be a ripe application of something like that, possibly for mitral valve repair,” says Black. “You don’t have to come back to take out the stitches. They can just stay there.”
Likewise, the material is used to coat stents that are also used in heart surgery, he adds.
But it’s also used in optical fibers and in space, he says, including at NASA: A space cable on the International Space Station uses this material.
For many other applications, Black says, “the key to the material has always been to create pores at the micron level, allowing the gas to move freely but not the liquid.” This makes it a great desiccant packaging material – some Zeus customers use it when shipping sensitive electronics, for example.
Likewise, oil and gas exploration companies use the materials to help find places to drill. “They make a bag and bury it in the ground. Fante explains that the“ secret salt ”that they put inside the bag attracts and absorbs the hydrocarbon vapor. This helps them determine where to direct the exercises. “
Ultimately, Funt says, this is why the company did not hesitate to do the work that Stanley needed to stamp, because from a business perspective, “once you have this basic material, you can create different things in completely different ways and explore new horizons – literally.”
Spree, who has returned to SETI, described these results as “nearly unusual, and disturbing.”
“What a small amount of money for NASA was a lever for Techno Planet to help them, it was a big contract for them at the time,” he notes. “But besides that, to see that a bigger organization, Zeus, was actually getting innovation out of the project – someone was looking at what Scott was doing and saying, ‘Oh, we have these issues in this other industry, we can use them to solve them.’ This is how technology should work. “
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