Experiments heading to International Space Station

International Space Station in orbit around the Earth

A Strathclyde-led experiment which could aid the discovery of new materials will be carried out on the International Space Station (ISS) after receiving £1.3 million in funding.

The experiment is one of three from the UK which will be carried out on the ISS in 2021 after receiving support from the UK Space Agency.

Led by Dr Marcello Lappa, of the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, the Strathclyde team will take advantage of the micro-gravity environment of the ISS to create particle structures which could allow the creation of alloys or medicines with properties that cannot be made on earth.

Complex fluids

The team will investigate complex fluids, which can be formed by adding fine particles to a liquid. These mixtures can exhibit peculiar properties. For example, yoghurt appears as a solid but behaves as a liquid once pressure is applied as its particles are dispersed.

On earth gravity causes the dispersed particles in such fluids to separate according to their weight – with heavy particles sinking to create sediment and lighter particles floating to the top. This can make the production of materials with specific structures and desired properties difficult to achieve on Earth.

In their experiment, the Strathclyde team will study how by vibrating and heating the complex fluids in space, largely free from the influence of gravity, in a very counterintuitive way the dispersed particles accumulate forming highly-ordered structures which can be used to make new materials.

The engineers say it could be a big step forward in the production of so-called ‘unobtanium’ – an engineering notion of a material with amazing properties which doesn’t exist on earth.

Dr Marcello Lappa, University of Strathclyde, said: “With these experiments we aim to investigate how by shaking a complex fluid in microgravity conditions we can create materials with structures that we cannot make on Earth.

“These experiments will lead to advanced contactless manipulation strategies for the assembly of new materials and alloys.

They may even shed some new light on the mechanisms supporting the formation of asteroids and planets.”

The experiment will involve using existing equipment on the ISS, with additional hardware built in the UK being launched into space in 2021.