Baylor research on carbon fibers could help NASA

By Linda Wilkins
Staff Writer

A NASA-funded research project may help gain recognition for Baylor’s students, faculty and research program, Dr. David Jack, assistant professor in mechanical engineering, said.

NASA’s space stations and shuttles currently use pressure vessels, which are containers with the ability to hold substances at high pressures.

These pressure vessels ­— or Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels, as NASA refers to them — can store gases such as nitrogen and helium, which help the shuttles’ engine processes work.

Jack said the pressure vessels are made of carbon fibers, which are stronger than steel.

While the fiber’s strength is beneficial for the space stations and shuttles, it makes the material harder to work with, which is the main problem NASA wants to overcome, Jack said.

These pressure vessels and carbon fibers are essential to the mechanisms in the space shuttles and stations, Jack said.

NASA is interested in knowing when and how the pressure vessels can and will fail or break apart because of the fibers.

Jack said carbon fibers make up a type of resin or fabric that NASA uses in the vessels to store the important gases on the space stations.

Researchers are focused on learning how the individual fibers of the resin work, because the pressure vessel failure will happen on that individual, tiny level, he said.

“The fibers are unusual, but that doesn’t make them dangerous,” Jack said. “We just need to understand them better.”

The fibers are unusual because they do not behave like any other fiber that the researchers know of and it is hard to predict how the fibers work.

In order to understand the behavior of the fibers, Baylor alumnus Babatunde Agboola, who worked on the research before he graduated in 2011, said the researchers are using proof tests, which are used to prove a material can withstand a certain test.

The tests could eventually lead to knowledge about how the material will fail.

Agboola is now a graduate student at Texas A&M and no longer involved in this research project.

He said this research could save many great minds.

He referenced the Columbia and Challenger shuttle disasters and said their destruction was because of the malfunction of some components in their systems.

Understanding the way these components, including the carbon fibers, work will have a significant impact, he said.

Jack confirmed Agboola’s observation about the impact of this research, and said he hopes carbon fibers can eventually be used for more everyday applications.

“We use pressure vessels throughout society,” Jack said, referencing the various pressure vessels on Earth such as propane tanks.

“We can’t completely rely on the carbon fibers unless we know how they fail,” he said.

Jack said the project is gaining recognition for Baylor and helping the university gain a reputation as a research institution.

He said research projects such as this one can build the national ranking of Baylor and boost the worth of a Baylor degree.

Multiple engineering students, professors and experts are working on the project with Jack.

“Students are getting amazing experiences working with these materials and experts,” Jack said.

“With this type of research, these students will have careers forever.”