Rensselaer Polytechnic Awarded $1m to Develop Synthetic Lubricant for Aircraft and Spacecraft

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have received a $1 million grant, as part of a $2.5 million joint research project with the University of Florida, to develop a new generation of synthetic lubricant coatings for future aircraft and spacecraft. The five-year award is from the United States Department of Defense’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.

Linda Schadler, Ph.D.professor of materials engineering, will lead the Rensselaer team on the project, which involves multidisciplinary research teams from both schools. The Rensselaer researchers also include Pulickel Ajayan, professor of materials engineering; Thierry Blanchet, associate professor of mechanical engineering; and Leonard Interrante, professor of chemistry. W. Gregory Sawyer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Florida, is the principal investigator on the project. Sawyer received his doctorate from Rensselaer in 1999.

“Vehicles that voyage from Earth’s warm and humid environment into the extreme cold vacuum of space require lubricants that can perform under a great range of conditions without fail,” Schadler said. “We are working to create a wide variety of new multifunctional coatings that provide low friction and high resistance to wear in multiple environments.”

To do that, the researchers are working to develop “chameleon” coatings that react to changes in the environment that a spacecraft experiences. Such lubricant coatings will be made from combinations of thin layers of carbon nanotubes, polymers, and ceramics that can reduce the rate of wear by 1,000 times or more.

“Our overarching goal,” Blanchet explained, “is to go from the basic understanding of the physical mechanisms involved in friction, wear, and lubrication to create coatings that function on Earth and in space,” he said. The study of friction, wear, and lubricants is known as tribology.

These new coatings, made of specially designed materials, are intended to support the operation of several systems for aircraft and spacecraft, such as bearings for antenna pointing systems, gyroscopes and inertia wheels, slip rings for electrical contacts, and transmission components.

“This is an outstanding opportunity to advance our understanding of how specially designed ceramic precursor molecules can be used to provide low-friction, low-wear coatings for mechanical components in space applications,” Interrante said.

“First we will work to create a series of specially designed materials, or nanocomposites,” Ajayan said. “Then we expect to develop some critical tools to test the materials, measure their lifespan and lubricating performance, and finally develop computer models to simulate the molecular dynamics.”

The research will be carried out in part at the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center, which integrates research, education, and technology dissemination, and serves as a resource for fundamental knowledge and applications in the assembly of nanostructures. Rensselaer is one of only six universities in the United States to receive designation as a National Science Foundation Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, created as part of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative.

Rensselaer’s graduate and undergraduate students will participate in the research and receive training and experience in synthesis, characterization, testing, and modeling of materials, Schadler said.

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