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UNC, other universities will help NASA develop space-age materials

CHAPEL HILL -- Imagine materials used in spacecraft and other applications that could repair themselves similarly to the way cuts heal on a sugar maple tree or a skateboarder's knobby knees, except more quickly. Or change shape somewhat without the great weight that hydraulic systems add.

Science fiction? So far yes, but scientists and officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration believe such near miracles one day will become reality. To spur their development, NASA has awarded a consortium of research institutions grants that should total $30 million within 10 years to create new materials that might revolutionize civil aviation and space travel.

The award will establish an Institute for Biologically Inspired Materials (IBIM) to investigate and design functional ways of simulating repair mechanisms used by plants, animals and other organisms. Participating institutions are the universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and California at Santa Barbara, Princeton and Northwestern universities and ICASE, a research institute operated at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia.

"Achieving such results will require expertise from many specialties," said Dr. Edward Samulski, Boshamer and Distinguished professor of chemistry and leader of UNC's part in the effort. "Each institution brings a strong background in different aspects of the project, which spans several disciplines.

"It's a rather ambitious thing to design materials that can not only recognize when they've been damaged but can indicate the exact site and take steps to repair it," Samulski said. "In a sense, it's at the fringes of science fiction. These so-called 'self-healing' materials could be critical to space exploration, because a meteor particle even as small as a grain of sand could puncture the hull of existing space vehicles."

Besides conducting research and developing technology, the institute will begin an education and training program along w
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Contact: David Williamson
919-962-8596
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
25-Sep-2002


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