NASA declares government tech invention of the year

Sounds like something straight out of a Terminator movie: A device that can act like muscle and nerves to expand and contract surfaces is the NASA Government Invention of the Year.

The Macro-Fiber Composite, or MFC, is made up of ceramic fibers and can be attached to a structure to bend it, reduce vibrations and monitor force. A team at NASA's Langley Research Center created the flexible and durable material. 

By applying voltage to the MFC, the ceramic fibers change shape to expand or contract and turn the resulting force into a bending or twisting action on the material. Likewise, voltage is generated in proportion to the force applied to the MFC material, NASA said in a statement.NASA sees MFC as being used in industrial and research applications for vibration monitoring and dampening. MFC technology could also find its way into inflatable space structures can be used for antennas, communication satellites, space station trusses, and solar sail support structures, NASA said. 

In addition to improved helicopter rotor blades research, NASA uses of MFC include vibration monitoring of support structures near the space shuttle pads during launches. The composite material can be used for pipeline crack detection and is being tested in wind turbine blades.Some non-aerospace applications being evaluated include suppressing vibration in performance sporting equipment such as skis, force and pressure sensing for industrial equipment and sound generation and noise cancellation in commercial grade appliances, NASA said.

During the next space shuttle mission,  STS-123, which is scheduled to launch in February, the  space shuttle Endeavour will carry MFCs into space for the Rigidizable Inflatable Get-Away-Special Experiment. RIGEX will operate in the shuttle’s cargo bay and is designed to test and collect data on inflated and rigid structures in space. Inflatable tubes will be heated and cooled to form structurally stiff tubes, NASA said.  Such inflatable structures can be used for antennas, communication satellites, trusses for manned space station, and support structures for solar sails. It will also provide a light-weight, compact, and cost reducing option for future spacecraft missions.

Smart Material Corp.  is the licensee and manufacturer of NASA's MFC technology.

NASA's general counsel selects the Invention of the Year Award with technical assistance from NASA's Inventions and Contributions Board. The 22-member ICB was is a major contributor in rewarding outstanding scientific or technical contributions sponsored, adopted, supported, or used by NASA which are significant to aeronautics and space activities, according to the group’s Web site.    

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