Get ready for the first gadgets to be stamped with the words, "Made In Space." The European Space Agency has plans to manufacture lightweight metal compounds under zero-gravity conditions on the International Space Station. The new materials could boost the efficiency of hydrogen engines and make aircraft faster, more powerful and less expensive to build. If we can achieve the proper thrust-to-weight ratio, jet-powered aircraft could become cheap enough that everyone can afford one.
ESA scientists are currently testing intermetallic materials, combinations of metal similar to alloys in which two or more metals are diffused together on a molecular level. Titanium aluminide is an intermetal that could cut the weight of fan blades in jet engines by half. Unfortunately, titanium aluminide tends to fail under high temperatures. This can be solved by introducing small amounts of other materials, such as niobium. In Earth gravity, weight differences between the different metals makes it difficult to get them to diffuse properly.
Small-scale tests in rockets have shown that zero-g solves many of the issues with intermetallic production. The ESA will run larger tests over longer periods of time in the new Columbus science module on the ISS. These space metals could revolutionize the aerospace industry. Photo by: NASA.