Tech to develop NASA’s next-gen space materials

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Michigan Technological University professor Greg Odegard stands by Tech’s Superior supercomputer. Odegard is heading a NASA-funded institute to design and simulate lightweight carbon materials to be used in space travel.

HOUGHTON — Michigan Technological University will play a role in developing the next generation of materials for space vehicles.

Tech professor Greg Odegard is heading a Space Technology Research Institute, which is being funded by a five-year, $15 million grant from NASA. That group, the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP), is looking to develop a lighter, stronger structural material made of carbon nanotubes for space travel — first a return to the moon, then a manned mission to Mars.

“What NASA’s looking for is materials that are even stronger and lighter than what we have now, so we can do that,” said Odegard, Richard and Elizabeth Henes Professor of Computational Mechanics at Michigan Tech and associate chair and director of undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics.

US-COMP includes 22 faculty members from 10 universities, two companies and the U.S. Air Force Research Lab. Tech’s participation will include five faculty members and at least as many students, Odegard said.

Using Tech’s superior high-performance computer cluster, the team will designate and simulate materials. Most of the simulations run on multiple scales, from the atomic to the microstructural, Odegard said.

“From that, we can design a material just on the atomic level and be able to predict its large-scale properties, which is what we’re trying to go for,” he said. “We’re trying to get improved large-scale properties by adjusting the atomic scale.”

Other universities will take on smaller parts of computer modeling. Another component will take the designs produced by the modeling and manufacture materials. A third group will test the materials’ mechanical properties.

In addition to the deep-space applications, the new materials could be used back on earth for airplanes or high-performance sports cars, Odegard said. The lighter materials would allow airplanes to get to their destinations using less fuel.

The institute is being set up with the potential for continuing research past the five-year point, either through new grants or additional funding from NASA.

“We’re really excited,” Odegard said. “It’s going to be a really good thing for the State of Michigan, certainly for the university and the local community, I think it’s a great opportunity. It helps to further solidify Michigan Tech as a leader in the aerospace field.”