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Space foil helps build safer cars

Hermes spaceplane

Europe’s Hermes spaceplane was intended to provide independent European manned access to space. Designed to take three astronauts to orbits of up to 800 km altitude on missions of 30–90 days, the spaceplane would have been launched using the Ariane 5 rocket.

A SPECIAL FOIL SENSOR developed to measure the pressure on a spaceplane’s wings during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere is now helping to build safer cars.

This ‘space’ foil has been transformed into a new super-thin and accurate sensor used by VW to measure every deformation suffered by cars during crash tests.

It all started in the early 1990s, when German engineer Paul Mirow was working on Europe’s Hermes spaceplane at Technical University Berlin. Hermes was planned as a reusable manned vehicle launched on Ariane 5.

To map the pressure distribution on the wings as Hermes returned through the atmosphere, a new sensor was needed because regular instruments were too bulky and added unrealistic drag. So Paul’s team turned to a special ‘piezoelectric’ foil to do the job.

Piezoelectric materials on a tooth

Piezoelectric materials were painted on a tooth to measure the forces exerted by a toothbrush.

Piezoelectric materials have a special property that converts physical effects like vibration and pressure into minute electric pulses. “It takes movement, forces or vibration, and turns it into an electrical signal,” Paul notes.

Super-thin sensor

In foil form, piezoelectric materials can serve as extremely lightweight sensors, able to cover an entire surface without distorting the results by adding drag.

“The piezoelectric foil is very thin, about 30 microns – a third of the thickness of a human hair,” explains Paul.

While other types of sensors create obstacles, with these piezoelectric foils, “You can just glue it to the surface, without creating any disturbances in the structure.”

The tests of Hermes’ wing in a hypersonic wind tunnel went well, and in 1995 Paul and his partners decided to adapt their piezoelectric foil for terrestrial applications.

One was even created for a dental company: “We painted a tooth with piezoelectric paint so they could measure the forces created by the toothbrush on the molar.”

Piezoelectric sensor

To map the pressure distribution on Hermes' wings as the spaceplane returned through the atmosphere, a new sensor was developed based on super-thin piezoelectric materials. They have a special property that converts physical effects like vibration and pressure into minute electric pulses.

Making cars safer

One of the most exciting applications was developed for VW to use in their crash tests.

At the yearly Hannover Fair, the German car company saw Paul’s products at the stand organised by ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office and its German partner, technology broker MST Aerospace.

VW hoped that the space sensors would solve a problem encountered in crash tests: sensors on cars are often destroyed at impact, making it difficult to collect highly accurate data throughout the crash process.

Contained in a highly flexible polymer film, the piezoelectric sensor is simply applied to the car’s surfaces. It moves with the metal as the car crashes, rather than being destroyed by the impact.

“The VW people asked, ‘is it possible to use this in crash tests?’” recalls Paul. “We said, ‘let’s try.’”

“We wanted to know at which moment which parts of the car are deformed,” explained Jens Weinrich, an engineer at VW.

“In a crash situation, it’s always a problem that you never know exactly what will happen.”

Crash test

The foil sensor is now used by German Volkswagen to measure their crash tests.

Paul’s firm developed a sensor in which each strip of foil contains 50 piezoelectric sensors, each about a square centimetre.

This makes it possible to measure exactly what is happening, and when, in exactly which places on the car. How fast is the metal bending? Is it bending 20º in one direction, or 60º in the other? And where precisely did it bend?

At the end of each strip, an equally thin, flexible printed circuit board with a 50-channel amplifier records the electrical impulses created by the mechanical deformations.

“We wanted not just qualitative, but also quantitative results,” said Mr Weinrich. “We wanted to know where it folded, and how much it folded.”

Following the development of the piezoelectric foil sensors, VW has now used them in a number of crash tests.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Images courtesy ESA / D. Ducros / Mirow Systemtechnik GmbH / Volkswagen Media Service.

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Space spin-offs – better cancer therapy

Artist's impression of a black hole

Safer, lower-dose medical scans are on their way, thanks to astronomers' studies of radiation from astronomical bodies such as black holes.

ASTRONOMERS ARE WORKING with medical physicists and radiation oncologists to develop a potential new radiation treatment—one that is intended to be tougher on tumours, but gentler on healthy tissue.

In studying how chemical elements emit and absorb radiation inside stars and around black holes, the astronomers discovered that heavy metals such as iron emit low-energy electrons when exposed to X-rays at specific energies.

Their discovery raises the possibility that implants made from certain heavy elements could enable doctors to obliterate tumours with low-energy electrons, while exposing healthy tissue to much less radiation than is possible today.  Similar implants could enhance medical diagnostic imaging.

Last month, at the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy, Ohio State University senior research scientist Sultana Nahar announced the team’s computer simulations of the elements gold and platinum, and the design of a prototype device that generates X-rays at key frequencies.

Their simulations suggest that hitting a single gold or platinum atom with a small dose of X-rays at a narrow range of frequencies—equal to roughly one tenth of the broad spectrum of X-ray radiation frequencies—produces a flood of more than 20 low-energy electrons.

“As astronomers, we apply basic physics and chemistry to understand what’s happening in stars. We’re very excited to apply the same knowledge to potentially treat cancer,” Nahar said.

“We believe that nanoparticles embedded in tumours can absorb X-rays efficiently at particular frequencies, resulting in electron ejections that can kill malignant cells,” she continued. “From X-ray spectroscopy, we can predict those energies and which atoms or molecules are likely to be most effective.”

CT scanner

The space spin-off will hopefully lead to better, life-saving scans.

Reducing patient’s radiation exposure

“From a basic physics point of view, the use of radiation in medicine is highly indiscriminate,” Pradhan added. “Really, there has been no fundamental advance in X-ray production since the 1890s, when Roentgen invented the X-ray tube, which produces X-rays over a very wide range.”

No fundamental advance, that is, until now.

Nahar and Anil Pradhan, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, discovered that particular frequencies of X-rays cause the electrons in heavy metal atoms to vibrate and break free from their orbits around the nucleus, creating what amounts to an electrically charged gas, or plasma, around the atoms at the nanometer scale.

“Together with long-time collaborator and medical physicist Yan Yu from Thomas Jefferson University Medical College, we’ve developed the … methodology, which we hope will have far-reaching consequences for X-ray imaging and radiation therapy,” Pradhan said.

While typical therapeutic X-ray machines such as CT scanners generate full-spectrum X-rays, hospitals could employ the new technique to greatly reduce a patient’s radiation exposure.

That’s the function of the proof-of-principle device that the team has constructed. Though the working tabletop prototype needs to be further developed, these first experiments show that the effect can be used to deliver specific frequencies of X-ray radiation to heavy metal nanoparticles embedded in diseased tissue for imaging or therapy.

“This work could eventually lead to a combination of radiation therapy with chemotherapy using platinum as the active agent,” Pradhan said.

Adapted from information issued by Ohio State University.

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Space spin-offs

This video shows how NASA technology designed to check for toxic gases on the launch pad, is now being pressed into service to help monitor dangerous volcanoes around the world.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / Sandra Joseph and Kevin O’Connell.

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