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Kentucky Universities' Research Heading to the International Space Station


Research efforts at the University of Louisville and other Kentucky colleges are heading to space.A grant from NASA will allow UofL to partner with scientists and engineers from the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University to send colloids to the International Space Station to answer questions related to physics and explore possibilities for the future of manufacturing, said Stuart Williams, a UofL mechanical engineering assistant professor and the project’s principal scientific investigator.So what are colloids?They are microparticles or nanoparticles that are evenly dispersed in a medium, most commonly that medium is liquid, Williams said.  Instances of colloids in everyday life include the microglobules of butterfat suspended in the whey of milk and blood cells suspended in plasma within blood. Fog could also be considered a colloidal solution.Scientists at the NASA’s Glen Research Center in Cleveland have commissioned the Kentucky universities to join nearly 20 other research collaborators to determine the fundamental physics on how the particles within a colloidal solution react to different environments, Williams said.In this case, those solutions will be sent to space—what Williams called a “unique research environment.”“You can look at these particles and how they interact without gravity interfering with those experiments,” Williams said.The findings of the research will help advance the understanding of colloidal physics needed to develop new materials with enhanced energy, thermal, optical, chemical and mechanical properties—which can lead to more efficient solar energy panels, stronger and lighter aerospace materials and less expensive electronic displays, according to statement from the UofL.“Essentially the next generation of devices,” Williams said.The research that will be conducted on the space station will give insight into debatable topics surrounding colloidal physics, Williams said.  The negligible amount of gravity in space will allow the experiment to be larger than it would otherwise be on Earth.  "We can make some discoveries that replicate what is going on at the nano scale that you can't readily see or easily see," Williams said.The grant, aside from allowing the research to occur, will also benefit the universities involved with the project by centralizing the efforts of colloidal research in the state. It will also create something of a  showcase of the researchers’ capabilities to NASA, Williams said.“Not only do we have the prestige of having samples on the International Space Station, but we have the unique opportunity to strengthen the colloidal research infrastructure of the state,” he said.The three year project is set to commence in June 2015, but Williams said he sees it lasting longer than that and leading into a sustained relationship with NASA.“We don’t see this as an open and shut research opportunity,” he said.  “We see this as a continued relationship.”He said tentative plans are for the samples to blast off from earth on SpaceX Flight 8 in 2015.

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.