NASA turns to universities for research in space-age materials

Sept. 20, 2002 5:39 p.m.

NASA has selected a consortium of research institutions to develop new generations of materials that could revolutionize civil aviation and space travel. The award will establish an Institute for Biologically Inspired Materials to investigate and design materials that simulate repair mechanisms used by biological organisms to heal wounds.

The institute consists of Princeton University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Northwestern University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and ICASE, a research institute operated at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. In addition to conducting basic research and technology development, the institute will initiate an education and training program in collaboration with the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The participants met for an initial workshop and planning session September 25 on the Princeton University campus.

The institute's mission is to increase fundamental understanding of natural phenomena and translate its findings into new materials that mimic the extraordinary structural and self-repairing properties of biological substances such as bone or sea shells. These biologically inspired materials could adapt to changing conditions and are expected to help make airplanes and spacecraft lighter, stronger and more reliable.

"Our goal is to bring more 'smart' functions into spacecraft materials," said Ilhan Aksay, a Princeton professor of chemical engineering who leads the institute. "Some of these functions already exist in biology."

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, will fund the project with at least $3 million a year for up to 10 years. The researchers also expect to develop partnerships with businesses that will translate laboratory discoveries into readily available products for American industry. NASA selected the consortium's proposal from among more than 100 initial submissions.

The program in bio-inspired materials is part of a broader effort by NASA to expand its relationship with academia by establishing seven university-based institutes, each of which will develop an area of technology of "long-term strategic interest to the agency and the nation." While two of the NASA institutes will focus on bio-inspired materials, the other five will work in areas such as propulsion or reusable launch vehicles.

The full story is available in the news release .

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601