Weaving processes created millennia ago have helped create some of the most cutting-edge technology on NASA’s Orion spaceship, helping shield heat for humans who may one day ride it to Mars and back.
Most of the heat shield is low-density and very good at insulating, but it’s not very strong. There are points across the surface, though, that must connect the crew capsule to its service module and, ultimately, the rocket. “At these points, you have to use a very strong, robust material,” says materials engineer Jay Feldman of Ames Research Center.
Previously used materials proved insufficient, but Feldman and others at Ames working with partners at high-tech weaving company Bally Ribbon Mills on next-generation heat-shielding materials had a good new candidate.
Where previous materials layered 2D woven composites, this new material was comprised of 3D woven blocks. “When you have fibers going in all three directions, it’s very, very strong,” explains Feldman. “And we can also tailor the composition so it has relatively low thermal conductivity.”
The final material, a quartz composite, was first developed with seed money from Ames. Then, under Small Business Innovation Research contracts and with funding from NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, Bally continued working on the material and modified its equipment to weave blocks 50 percent thicker than it previously could.
The result “is like a brick,” explains Bally Ribbon Mills’ Curt Wilkinson. “We are packing a lot of fiber in there.”
Unlike many designs that tend to focus on doing just one thing really well, the 3D composite is versatile: it can carry loads, act as a shock absorber, conduct electricity well, and serve as thermal insulation.
Now the Bally, Pennsylvania-based company sells the quartz composite material to aerospace companies and uses the modified weaving equipment to make larger, denser blocks of 3D carbon composites for race cars.