Though NASA has despatched many missions to Mars, nothing, to this point, has ever come again. That’s one thing the Company hopes to vary—and it’s engaged on the expertise wanted to make it occur. These improvements are already paying dividends on Earth, together with a brand new twist on a well known materials that may now be used to sew up hearts throughout surgical procedure.

This photograph by NASA’s Curiosity rover reveals the Windjana rock web site, the place the rover’s instruments drilled down for a pattern to investigate. NASA learns quite a bit from these rovers, but it surely might be taught much more by bringing a rock pattern house for deeper evaluation in Earth-based labs. Picture credit score: NASA

For NASA, “the mission to return samples from Mars has been on the prime of the planetary science to-do checklist for a while,” says Andy Spry, who labored on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) throughout this undertaking and is now a senior scientist on the SETI (Seek for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and helps NASA’s Workplace of Planetary Safety.

“Relatively than being constrained by the restrictions of how a lot {hardware} we are able to ship to Mars, we are able to apply the entire {hardware}, the entire data on Earth, to a Mars pattern that’s introduced again,” he says.

However any pattern canister wants a powerful seal, each to maintain Earth’s environment from contaminating the pattern, and to guard Earth from any potential contamination from Mars.

“The difficulty is, once you’re getting out a pattern, it’s sometimes very soiled,” explains engineer Scott Stanley. “Drilling right into a rock, you contaminate all the things round you with particles.” If Martian mud will get in every single place, the lid won’t seal appropriately.

Stanley, vice chairman of expertise at a small firm known as Techno Planet Inc., was engaged on a seal, primarily based on an award from NASA, that geared toward a leak price “measured on the molecular stage, by way of what’s getting out and in,” he recollects. “No present seal might meet that in a contaminated atmosphere.”

He needed to make use of a “knife-edge seal,” the place the stainless-steel fringe of the canister-base cuts right into a comfortable steel, on this case indium that fills a lip across the lid. Nonetheless, if the “knife edge” is roofed in filth, that might get caught within the comfortable steel, leaving gaps and stopping a seal.

Stanley had a plan: a barrier layer that covers the comfortable steel. When the sting pushes by way of that barrier, it might be cleaned.

“The difficulty was,” Stanley says, “I used to be very restricted on the supplies selections by the science necessities.” Amongst different necessities, he wanted one thing certified for area use, that doesn’t emit gasoline that might contaminate a pattern, and that may very well be utterly sterilized earlier than launch. “The one materials I might use was some type of PTFE,” or polytetrafluoroethylene, which is extra generally referred to as Teflon.

Know-how Switch

Whereas most individuals are conversant in Teflon as a nonstick coating for pots and pans, the fabric has different makes use of and different types. At first, Stanley thought he would make the barrier on his seal out of expanded PTFE (ePTFE) ribbon.

For that, Stanley turned to Orangeburg, South Carolina-based Zeus Inc., utilizing funding from the Small Enterprise Innovation Analysis contract he’d been awarded by JPL for the undertaking. Nonetheless, when the corporate despatched samples, they didn’t work as Stanley had hoped.

“The ePTFE, earlier than the knife would be capable to minimize by way of it, the comfortable steel of the seal began squeezing out from beneath,” even after a number of prototypes and exams, he says.

However Zeus wasn’t prepared to surrender. ePTFE ribbon is made with a calendaring course of—the PTFE is expanded after which flattened to make it thinner and stronger, however that additionally makes it stiffer, explains international market supervisor Jason Fant. “Mainly, we would have liked to maintain the favorable traits however to lose the facet impact of constructing it stiffer.”

They determined to ditch the calendaring method and attempt to create an ePTFE ribbon otherwise: by way of a large-diameter extrusion, “form of like a Play-Doh Enjoyable Manufacturing unit,” Fant jokes.

PTFE begins as a powder, explains international enterprise growth supervisor Wayne Black, and the corporate creates distinctive extrusions with that powder. “PTFE powder is compressed at excessive pressures right into a ‘preform’ at ambient temperature. That preform is then compelled beneath excessive stress by way of a ending die in a custom-made extruder to create the completed half,” Black says. By creating totally different warmth processing zones, he provides, “we are able to stretch the fabric to present it distinctive properties.”

The extruded ePTFE ribbon labored, and Stanley was thrilled. “Zeus was superior—they’re an enormous firm, and right here they’re operating these small, customized runs for me,” he recollects.

It was a major funding of growth time and {dollars} for what amounted to a really small sale to Stanley—however Zeus says it paid off. Altogether, it says, gross sales in PTFE ribbon, with each ePTFE and extruded PTFE mixed, went up by double digits, with a rise of about 50 to 60 p.c within the varieties of functions the place the ribbon is used.


So what are these functions? There are a lot, says Black, however one of the shocking—and life-saving—is within the human physique.

“This materials is exclusive, as a result of it’s comfortable, versatile, and robust—and it’s additionally biocompatible. It’s a fabric that may safely work together within the physique and will be safely implanted within the physique,” Black notes.

One product Zeus sells is extruded ePTFE sutures. “Let’s say you had a coronary heart situation that might be a ripe software for one thing like that, possibly mitral valve restore,” Black says. “You don’t have to return in to take the stitches out. They’ll simply keep there.”

Likewise, the fabric is used to encapsulate stents which are additionally utilized in coronary heart surgical procedures, he provides.

However it’s additionally utilized in fiber optics and aerospace, he says, together with at NASA: an area cable on the Worldwide House Station makes use of the fabric.

For a lot of different functions, Black says, “the important thing to the fabric has at all times been that you simply’re creating pores on the submicron stage, which permits gasoline to maneuver freely however not liquid.” That makes it an ideal materials for desiccant packaging aids—a few of Zeus’ clients use these once they ship delicate electronics, for instance.

In the same manner, oil and gasoline drilling corporations use the fabric to assist discover locations to drill. “They make a pouch and bury it within the floor. Their ‘secret salt’ that they put contained in the pouch attracts and absorbs hydrocarbon vapor,” explains Fant. “After they dig it up, they’ll run it by way of a spectrometer, and it’s like a map of the place hydrocarbons are arising and at what price. And that helps them pinpoint the place to level the drill.”

In the end, says Fant, this is the reason the corporate didn’t hesitate to do the work Stanley wanted for his seal, as a result of from a enterprise perspective, “after you have that base materials you may create various things in very alternative ways and discover new frontiers—actually.”

Spry, again at SETI, calls these outcomes “virtually extraordinary, heartwarming.

“What was a small sum of money to NASA was a lever for Techno Planet to assist them, it was a big contract for them on the time,” he notes. “However alongside that, to know {that a} bigger group, Zeus, has really gotten innovation out of the undertaking—anyone was what Scott was doing and saying, ‘Oh, now we have these issues on this different trade, we are able to use it to unravel them.’ That’s how expertise ought to work.”

Supply: NASA


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By Clark