Team takes science into space


Three years of preparation supported by NASA paid off for UIC researchers who conducted experiments while floating weightless on a Novespace & European Space Agency plane.

Under the direction of Alexander Yarin, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, two brothers — Suman Sinha Ray, a postdoctoral fellow and recent UIC graduate, and Sumit Sinha Ray, a graduate student — went aloft and braved high- and zero gravity to test a cooling system Yarin’s team developed for hot-running microelectronics.

When liquid on a hot surface evaporates, it carries away heat. Yarin and his colleagues wanted to find out how well the evaporative cooling system they developed would work under conditions of twice-normal or zero gravity.

The UIC researchers, one of 12 international teams monitoring experiments onboard the Novespace Airbus plane, collaborated with Cameron Tropea of Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany, who sent three students onboard.

The Novespace Airbus’ parabolic flights produces conditions of weightlessness and nearly double normal gravity. When the plane traces a parabola, gravitational force increases as it climbs or descends steeply. As the plane reaches its peak and floats over the top of the curve, the crew experiences weightlessness.

Over three days, the group flew three flights. On each three-and-a-half-hour flight, the plane flew 31 parabolas — five minutes through the curve, five minutes rest, then another five-minute parabola, with a rest after every third parabola.

The flights were physically demanding but “exciting and fun,” Suman said. The scientists were warned not to float around the cabin as astronauts do in the space station. When you move your head while weightless, he said, “your senses don’t match,” and many people become nauseated, even after a pre-flight anti-nausea injection.

Suman was right at home, Sumit said, and “worked on the computer very naturally as we ran the experiment.”

Suman Sinha Ray prepares for the zero and double-gravity experiments

Suman Sinha Ray prepares for the zero and double-gravity experiments designed by engineering professor Alexander Yarin. Photo: Sumit Sinha Ray (click on image for larger file size)

Sumit photographed the experiment while keeping a close eye on the pressurized rig running the system. Holding the camera steady as his feet floated off the floor was challenging, he said, as was keeping an eye on his fellow researchers. He accidentally kicked a Japanese scientist who floated too close.

The UIC researchers tested their cooling system for potential use in near or outer space.

Satellites, rockets and drones have elaborate electro-optical and infrared sensors, recording equipment and data processing systems. All of these electronics are designed with smaller and smaller elements that generate heat and can burn out.

“This is a problem that is very acute,” Yarin said. “We are very nearly at the limit of miniaturization because of the problem of heat removal.”

Yarin and his group developed nano-textured surfaces that dramatically increase cooling efficiency. Their cooling system covers high-heat surfaces with mats made from tangles of nanofibers. The extremely thin fibers of the mat trap coolant against the surface so that evaporation is rapid and complete.


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