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Nanotechnology is Reaching New Heights at Boise State University

By: Sherry Squires   Published 1:46 pm / May 16, 2017

Electrical engineering Ph.D. student Ashita Chandani (left) and MSE Ph.D. student Sam Pedersen (right) present their flexible solar cell based prototype to NASA mentor Ben Peters (center).

Dave Estrada, assistant professor in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering, offers a graduate course titled Nanoscale Transport that facilitates industry partnerships and hands-on experiences for students. He recently partnered with NASA and MicroLink Devices to take nanotechnology to new heights.

NASA is particularly interested in nanotechnology solutions that promote successful crewed missions to Mars. MicroLink Devices specializes in cultivating new materials for use in wireless communications devices. The materials are also useful in fabricating advanced solar cells that can be used in space, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and here on our own planet Earth.

Nanoscale transport includes the fundamental and applied treatment of quantum particles such as photons, electrons and phonons as energy carriers from the nanoscale (<100 nm) to the macroscale. Estrada recently taught a graduate course in nanoscale transport where he presented theories of energy transport in the forms of waves and particles. Emerging 2-dimensional (2D) materials such as graphene and transition metal dichalcogenides and their applications in flexible and printed electronics also were introduced. Students learned how quantum particles interact with material defects, interfaces and atomic vibrations. They also analyzed current experimental methods used to measure energy transport processes.

Estrada’s most recent nanoscale transport course facilitated teamwork with the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Wearable Technology CLUSTER (Collaboration for Leveraging Universities in Space Technology Engineering and Research.) Students from Boise State, University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, University of Texas San Antonio, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and the Pratt Institute collaborated on research to solve a variety of engineering challenges.

Student teams were paired with NASA and industry mentors to research wearable biosensors for astronauts, navigation systems for human missions to Mars, and odor mitigation strategies for crew clothing aboard the International Space Station. Together they developed working prototypes that may provide solutions.

Materials science and engineering student Aline Elquist

Materials science and engineering student Aline Elquist shares results on the flexible strain gauge with Kam Lulla, Chief Scientist for Earth Observations and Deputy Manager, University Research, Collaboration and Partnership Office, Johnson Space Center.

“The in-class projects provided students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience applying theories to real-world challenges of significant impact,” said Estrada. “Students also gained an appreciation of nanomaterials and their potential in solving tough engineering problems.”

NASA is researching the use of advanced sensor networks that monitor the structural health of inflatable habitats such as portable homes and laboratories on Mars. One of Estrada’s class projects included developing a flexible strain gauge that could be integrated into a larger sensor network to monitor environmental conditions and structural health of such inflatable habitats.

Mars missions require next generation space suits that allow astronauts to explore the planet’s surface and conduct experiments under extreme conditions. Students gained hands-on experience developing an electrical power generation system that could be used in the environmental protection garments worn by astronauts. Based on MicroLink Devices’ solar cell technology, the students developed a solar energy harvesting system that could help recharge batteries used for life support or powering scientific equipment on Mars.

With support from the Idaho Space Grant Consortium and Idaho NASA EPSCoR, student teams traveled to NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to present their research and prototypes at the Wearable Technology Symposium. Astronaut Tom Marshburn, who served onboard the space shuttle Endeavour and on the International Space Station, and Ian Meginnis of the advanced space suit development team were on site to meet with students. A VIP tour of the Johnson Space Center, including the original Mission Control Center for the Apollo missions, was an unforgettable culminating class experience.

Students seeking a unique, team-based experience should plan to enroll in the next nanoscale transport course, which will be offered in spring 2018. The course is one of several that are related to nanomaterials science and engineering offered by the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering.