Shape of things to come

NASA is to fund the development of shape-changing aircraft wings through a 10-year project that will investigate the use of nanomaterials and biological technologies.

The radical aeronautical project aims to change aircraft control and provide adaptable aerodynamics and greater fuel economy. NASA is funding the research at the Intelligent Bio-Nano Materials and Structures for Aerospace Vehicles Institute.

Supported with $15m (£9.5m) for the first five years, the work will involve nanotube composite structures, sensors, and multifunctional materials that work with biological compounds. These will also undergo radiation experiments to assess reliability in extreme environments.

Research in composite materials will be focused on developing, what the institute is calling the Reconfigurable Smart Wing Experiment. This will incorporate distributed sensing and actuation systems needed for shape changing.

The experiment will aid the investigation into the fundamental issues relating to how well a wing can be reshaped instantaneously where changing aerodynamic forces are encountered.

Although the size of the wing has yet to be determined it will be tested in the institute’s wind tunnel and ‘fly’ at subsonic speeds.

This work will feed into NASA’s Active Aeroelastic Wing programme, which aims to create a shape-changing wing. The AAW is part of a $41m (£30m) research programme involving NASA, the US Air Force and Boeing’s Phantom Works.

As well as the wing research, the institute predicts that nanocomposite fibres could also be used for flexible inflatable space structures, that can provide radiation protection or thermal management. Similar composites could also be used for hydrogen and hydrocarbon storage using nanotubes. The same nanotubes could also be incorporated into thin film super-capacitors that need no maintenance, can operate in many temperatures and have 10 times as much power as normal capacitors.

Dr Dan Davis, operations director for the institute, which consists of six Texas-baseduniversities, hopes that the materials would have a wide range of uses from aeronautics to space applications.

‘We foresee multifunctional walls for space capsules. The outer wall would operate as a solar panel, while the inner wall would act as a sensor monitoring the internalenvironment’. Davis explained that the institute would also have key research areas, in high strength-to-weight ratios nanomaterials with self-healing capabilities andnanotechnologies for proteins and biological sensors.

To realise these materials the research teams are aiming to purify and functionalise carbon nanotubes to enable new ceramic composites that have electrically conductive, switchable molecules.

These could be used to develop nanocomposites able to self-heal and sense stress. This material would come in the form of films, sheets, pellets, and continuous fibre for component production.

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