Deanna Conti, a graduate student in the research lab of Yanfei Xu, an assistant professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, has received a $3,500 MA Space Grant Fellowship from NASA to develop thermally conductive polymers. Specifically, she will work on turning Kapton®, a commercially available polyimide and thermal insulator from Dupont, into a heat conductor.
Conti says that Kapton possesses unique optical and electrical properties that make it ideal for a variety of vital aerospace applications, including, but not limited to, Webb telescope sunshields, functions on the Mars Perseverance Rover, Kapton-insulated conductors, and flexible electronics.
“In contrast to metals, polymers are predominantly thermal and electrical insulators,” Conti explains about the kinds of polymers she is developing. “With their extraordinary qualities (flexibility, light weight, corrosion resistant, chemical stability, etc.), turning polymer insulators into heat conductors with metal-like thermal conductivity is of substantial interest and technological importance for heat dissipation applications.”
As Conti specifies about the technical details of her research with Professor Xu, “Our plan is to develop Kapton-based nanocomposites by noncovalent functionalization Kapton with boron nitride nanofillers. The functionalized boron nitride nanofillers will be added into Kapton at varying volume fractions, thus enabling us to investigate structure-property relationships as well as explore the capabilities pertaining to thermal conductivities….”
According to Conti, the overarching research in Xu’s lab “concentrates on engineering advanced polymers and understanding the heat and charge transport mechanisms. To date, Professor Xu holds publications in Science Advances, Nature Communications, Polymer, Polymer Chemistry, and Materials Horizons. Yanfei Xu has 10 issued/applied patents, 33 peer-reviewed research papers, and four book chapters with a total of 5000+ citations.”
Conti adds that Xu’s “contribution to this research continues to be a valuable asset that strengthens our ability to capture, reconstruct, and enrich the use of polymers as heat conductors.”
Conti says that a few of the tasks to be addressed in her research include overheating challenges, expanding polymer use in thermal management systems for NASA electronics, meeting the underlying necessities that aviation demands, and more.
As Conti concludes, “I want to emphasize that this research not only contributes to NASA; polymers possess the capabilities to open up endless opportunities for advanced thermal management applications when they are transformed into thermal conductors.”
NASA initiated the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project, also known as Space Grant, in 1989. Space Grant is a national network of colleges and universities that, as NASA explains, “is working to expand opportunities for Americans to understand and participate in NASA's aeronautics and space projects by supporting and enhancing science and engineering education, research, and public outreach efforts.” (October 2022)