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NEWS | Feb. 13, 2024



In the vast expanse of outer space, where the vacuum is unforgiving and the environment harsh, the challenges of sustaining manned space flights are numerous. Among these challenges, the critical need for on-demand replacement parts during a mission has always been constrained by the limitations of space travel—supplying additional components adds considerable weight and subsequently increases launch costs, with figures soaring as high as $1,200 per pound for SpaceX payloads.

Enter the realm of 3D printing, a technological marvel that promises a solution to the logistical nightmare of carrying an exhaustive supply of spare parts. With the ability to produce components on-demand and with minimal technical know-how, 3D printing holds the potential to revolutionize space exploration. However, a significant hurdle remains in the form of creating polymeric materials from raw building blocks, especially in an environment where traditional solvents with high volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are impractical and potentially hazardous.

In a breakthrough that echoes through the corridors of innovation, Dr. Scott Iacono of the United States Air Force Academy and Dr. Chad Friesen of Trinity Western University of Western Canada have unveiled cutting-edge technology that might revolutionize repairs in space. Two patents, numbered 11,702,390 and 11,603,357, stand as testaments to their groundbreaking work. This trailblazing process transforms raw building blocks into polymeric materials with a simple yet ingenious method—by "hand shaking" them simply by adding mechanical force. The beauty of this innovation lies in its independence from the constraints of gravity and the absence of flammable solvents, making it particularly suitable for the stringent safety requirements of space missions.

The driving force behind this pioneering technology is collaboration. Dr. Iacono, director of the USAFA Chemistry Research Center, spent summers alongside Dr. Friesen under the AF Office of Scientific Research Summer Faculty Fellowship Program (SFFP). The program emphasizes collaboration that fuels advancements in DoD projects, like space exploration. This partnership is particularly successful because they both have a mindset of being hands on when developing materials for advanced applications. Dr. Iacono states, “Chad and I actually still work in the lab... We're just kind of that way. We're pretty blue collar in that regard. A lot of these folks [SFFP visiting faculty] lend an additional expertise that I don't necessarily have on staff so it really it really broadens our landscape of expertise. My background is fluorinated polymers and his background is fluorinated polymers, but specifically towards elastomers, meaning things that are really rubbery so that there's a little bit of art to that specialty that I don't necessarily have and I'm able to gain that from him.”

The focus of their patent work extends beyond the theoretical realm, as they aim to create elastomers specifically designed for cryogenic seals. These seals are engineered to withstand the extreme conditions of space, ensuring durability and reliability in the face of demanding environments. Moreover, the technology they are developing has the potential to transcend the confines of Earth, opening the door for in-space 3D printing using these space-capable materials.

Crucial analytical support for this ambitious venture comes from Professor Andrea Kelly of the USAFA Department of Chemistry. Her expertise contributes to the comprehensive understanding and refinement of the materials developed by Drs. Iacono and Friesen, marking a collaborative effort that underscores the interdisciplinary nature of cutting-edge scientific research.

The significance of their work was further underscored when their research, adorned with the stamp of excellence, graced the cover of the premier polymer journal Macromolecules in December 2022. This recognition not only validates the merit of their contributions but also propels their innovative technology into the spotlight of the scientific community.

As Dr. Scott Iacono, Dr. Chad Friesen, and their collaborative team continue to push the boundaries of materials science, their vision reaches beyond the confines of our planet. In the not-so-distant future, the phrase "Shaken, Not Stirred" may become synonymous not only with the iconic preference of a fictional British spy but also with the transformative technology that reshapes the landscape of space exploration—one handshake at a time.

Patent License Agreements are offered through the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Technology Transfer and Transition (T3) program office. A comprehensive suite of T3 mechanisms for partnering with industry and academia is offered through the office. To find out how you can partner with the T3 Program, please visit TechLink assists the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs by actively marketing its available patented technologies to prospective companies and facilitating license agreements.


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