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Liquids on Pause

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Liquids on Pause

Upcoming experiments planned for the International Space Station will help engineers on Earth learn to handle undercooled fluids.


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October 16, 2003: High-performance golf clubs. Ultra-sharp knives. Superior fiber optics for telecommunications. Tough, lightweight materials for future spacecraft.

What do all these things have in common? They can all be made using "undercooled" liquids: molten materials that are cooled below the normal freezing point yet, through special handling, are kept in a liquid state.

see captionBy avoiding normal freezing, one can coax the liquid into becoming a very different kind of solid. In normal freezing, the molecules of the liquid settle into an orderly crystalline grid, like soldiers falling in line. This is how ice, normal metals, and indeed most solids are formed. Undercooled liquids solidify in a different way. As they cool, they thicken and eventually stop flowing--like a liquid "on pause." The result is a solid whose molecules remain scrambled in a semi-random, amorphous arrangement. This molecular structure, most commonly found in window glass but possible in metals, too, has special properties. Amorphous metal alloys, for instance, can be twice as strong and three times more elastic than steel.

Right: The molecular structure of normal vs. amorphous solids. Image courtesy Liquidmetal Technologies.

There's great potential for products made from these liquids, but they are notoriously difficult to handle.

An undercooled liquid is a delicate, unstable state of matter. It desperately "wants" to crystallize into a normal solid. All that's needed is a place for the crystallization to begin--such as the crystalline surface of a container wall or even a speck of dust--and the liquid will suddenly freeze solid. In other words, working with undercooled liquids is a bit like juggling mousetraps: they're prone to suddenly "snap" and ruin the trick.

see captionRemarkably, manufacturers on Earth have managed to make some products from these liquids anyway: computer components, golf clubs, tennis racquets. There's even a solar wind collector on board NASA's Genesis spacecraft made of undercooled amorphous metal.

Left: A few of the things manufacturers can make better using undercooled fluids. Image courtesy Liquidmetal Technologies.

These items are just the beginning. As engineers learn more about the basic physics and properties of undercooled fluids, they'll be able to do more with them. And that's where the International Space Station (ISS) can help. In the weightlessness of Earth orbit, it's possible to study fluids without holding them in containers that might trigger premature crystallization.

Edwin Ethridge, a materials scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Prof. Basil Antar, a fluid dynamicist at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, and Prof. William Kaukler of the University of Alabama in Huntsville are working on a way to measure the viscosity of containerless fluids onboard the ISS. Their idea is simple: If two floating drops of a liquid touch each other, they will merge to form a single, larger drop. The speed of this merger is partially controlled by viscosity--water will merge much faster than honey, for example. So watching this speed lets scientists measure the liquid's viscosity.

Good viscosity measurements are critical for working with undercooled fluids, which thicken dramatically as they cool. The friction between molecules in one of these cooling fluids can skyrocket by as much as a quadrillion times (1015) as it solidifies. Without a graph plotting how this thickening occurs in relation to cooling temperatures, engineers can't easily mold these liquids into useful shapes.

see captionRight: The speed at which droplets merge depends on their viscosity.

To understand why, just imagine what would happen if you designed a mold with lots of complex nooks and crannies so that it works well for undercooled liquids with the thickness of vegetable oil. But as you poured the undercooled liquid into the mold, it cooled slightly, causing an unexpected thousand-fold thickening--rendering the liquid as thick as honey. The object produced is likely to look more like modern art than a saleable product.

Getting the data to make viscosity vs. temperature curves is the ultimate goal of Ethridge, Antar and Kaukler's research. Their upcoming experiment, called Fluid Merging Viscosity Measurements (FMVM), is a proof of concept. It will show how viscosity measurements of containerless fluids can be made in the microgravity environment of the ISS.

The physics is hard enough, but the scientists had to tackle another problem as well: Because room for sending research equipment up to the station is limited while the shuttle fleet is grounded, the researchers had to find a way to do their experiment using things that can be tucked inside a Russian Progress supply rocket or found already onboard the station.

"I have selected 8 liquids for testing," says Ethridge. "They've been loaded in syringes that will be launched on a Progress rocket to the space station." One of them is ordinary honey. Although it only crystallizes very slowly, honey is actually an undercooled liquid. It works just fine for proving that this "floating drop" method can accurately measure a liquid's viscosity.

Below: The strength and elasticity of amorphous solids ("glassy alloys") exceed that of many other materials.

see captionThe experiment goes like this: Honey (or one of the other liquids) will be squeezed from its syringe and transferred onto thin strings. "Nomex thread and string is available on the space station and can be used to confine and control the liquid drops in orbit. Thin solder wire may also be used to manipulate the drops," notes Ethridge. With a drop clinging to each of two strings, a crew member will bring them slowly together, allowing the drops to gently touch and merge. A video camera kept aboard the station will record what happens as the drops slowly form a peanut shape and eventually a single sphere.

Back on the ground, researchers will examine the footage frame by frame to determine exactly how fast the drops merged. Because the viscosity of the test samples is already known, researchers can compare the measured value with the real value to see if they're on the right track.

The researchers currently plan to conduct the FMVM experiment sometime during Expedition 8, which is scheduled to begin in late October. Their work could result in a new way of knowing the viscosity of undercooled liquids. And after that... no one knows, but golf clubs and kitchenware are probably just the beginning.

more information

NASA's Office of Biological & Physical Research (OBPR) supports experiments in fundamental physics for the benefit of humans on Earth and in space.

Fluid Merging Viscosity Measurement -- experiment fact sheet

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More about viscosity:  There are some ground-based methods for measuring the viscosity of undercooled fluids, notes William Johnson, a professor at Caltech specializing in amorphous solids and founder of the company Liquidmetal Technologies. These measurements have proven adequate for producing a first generation of products from undercooled liquids, such as those sold by Johnson's company. But current measurement techniques can't provide the whole "viscosity vs. temperature" curve. Engineers must essentially guess about the gaps in the curve.

"There's always room to improve our manufacturing processes," Johnson says. "Filling in the gaps in the viscosity curve would let us find ways to make our products even better."

The biggest gap is in the middle of the curve: thin liquids and semi-solids can both be measured, but intermediate liquids--with a thickness like honey or tar--are not easily measured with most undercooled liquids. "Getting the viscosity data in this intermediate temperature range is the ultimate goal" says Edwin Ethridge, the principle investigator of the Fluid Merging Viscosity Measurements (FMVM) experiment. FMVM is a proof of concept that will utilize fluid dynamics calculations by Prof. Basil Antar of the University of Tennessee Space Institute, to show how viscosity measurements of containerless viscous fluids can be made in the microgravity environment of the ISS. Several years ago Ethridge and Antar conducted experiments during low gravity parabolas on NASA's KC 135 aircraft to show how viscosity measurements of containerless viscous fluids can be made in the microgravity environment. Experiments can be run for much longer times on ISS than on aircraft and the method can be (further) verified.

Military interest -- web page from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency about amorphous metals

Center for Structural Amorphous Metals -- at the California Institute of Technology

Companies working with amorphous metals: Metglas Solutions, Liquidmetal Technologies

Glass from Space -- from Science@NASA: article about microgravity research on glasses, one kind of undercooled liquid.

Studying undercooled metals in space -- from Science@NASA

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