Saturday, August 22, 2009
The technology described in this story is a spin-off of basic materials science research. It began years ago with scientists who were melting alloys and semiconductors in space-furnances. Melting and cooling these substances in microgravity is a good way to learn their basic properties, and, perhaps, to create new materials never before seen on Earth. But there was a problem: Semiconductors such as gallium arsenide were eating through the refractory metal containers scientists used (like a cook uses oven pans) to hold materials inside the furnace. The vacuum plasma technique with the FGM process was developed, with support from NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research, to coat and protect the insides of these containers. Better rocket engines were an unintended but welcome bonus. You never know where basic research will lead!