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Envisioning “designer aerospace materials”


Aerospace engineers of the future might design airplanes while simultaneously inventing new materials with the properties that the aircraft designs would require. NASA expects to release a final report in October that will explain in detail how this would work.

After delivering a draft of the report to NASA in November, the agency’s contractor for the report, Pratt & Whitney, is working with subcontractor Nexight Group of Maryland to organize workshops with aerospace and materials industry groups. Draft concepts will be presented and feedback will be solicited. NASA is also forming panels of experts to review and rewrite sections of the report, called “Vision 2040 for Integrated, Multiscale Materials and Structures Modeling/Simulation.” The report will lay out the issues, goals and implementation plans in each of about 10 core areas.

Fundamentally, NASA wants to harness advances in software and massive computing power to combine aerospace design with materials design. Today, those areas are largely treated as separate domains. “The idea is: In 2040, you’re going to marry the paradigm of ‘designing with the material’ to a paradigm called ‘designing the material,’” says Steven Arnold, manager of the 2040 Vision project and senior research engineer for leading materials and structures modeling, simulation and validation research at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Dale Hopkins, acting project manager of NASA’s transformational tools and technologies project at Glenn, says engineers could “explore the benefits of inventing that new material by examining how it will perform in a system design, and do that all as a connected process.”

Today, designers of airplanes and airplane engines select known materials based on the properties the designers are looking for, such as tensile strength or ability to withstand certain temperatures — like looking up words in a dictionary, says Xuan Liu, a senior engineer for the coatings development group at Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut, and the program manager for the vision report. The materials engineers then come up with a plan for testing the materials as they will be built into the designed engine or aircraft.

In the future, with computing tools drawing on vast stores of data on all of the known materials and their properties, designers could create airplanes or airplane engines from yet-to-be-invented materials. That could mean combinations of two or three or more metals in a new alloy, for example, or new composite ceramics or polymer materials, Liu says. Designers could draw up plans for airplanes down to the molecular scale, with the help of sophisticated computer models that would accurately predict how the materials would perform.

The project has two more workshops planned to solicit perspectives from the aerospace and materials industries, both at conferences in May: at the 4th World Congress on Integrated Computational Materials Engineering in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the 27th AeroMat Conference and Exposition in Bellevue, Washington.

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Aircraft Design

“In 2040, you’re going to marry the paradigm of ‘designing with the material’ to a paradigm called ‘designing the material.’”

Steven Arnold of NASA, manager of the 2040 Vision project

Envisioning “designer aerospace materials”

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