The University of Massachusetts Amherst


This story was originally published by the UMass News Office.

University of Massachusetts Amherst mechanical engineering major Brendan Scott has received a NASA undergraduate fellowship to study how insulative polymers could be turned into high thermal conductivity polymers. These polymers are desirable for a wide variety of applications ranging from space exploration to electronics that need to dissipate heat quickly and efficiently.

Such high-performance technology doesn’t exist yet in a large-scale way, but Scott is excited about the possible application of this work both among the stars as well as back here on Earth. “These designs would impact everything from heat sinks in small electronics to wirings, coatings, motors and more on space missions, having a huge impact across all disciplines of engineering.”

The fellowship is awarded by the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, part of NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project. It is one of 52 consortia that create a network of more than 850 affiliates from various universities and other educational institutions. Scott has been awarded $6,000 to conduct his research this summer.

“Polymers are generally really insulative materials,” explains Scott, who graduating from UMass in December. “Even though they have all of these benefits like being easily machined, chemical resistance or low density, they have around a 0.1 to 0.33 watts per meter Kelvin thermal conductivity. It’s very insulative.” While the materials that are good conductors of heat are large, bulky, hard to make and expensive to maintain.

“Every single time you have some sort of overheating problem, some sort of weight problem, some sort of chemical-like corrosion problem, you could do it better if you had these materials in your repertoire to use,” says Scott. “The development of thermally conductive polymers allows us to create new designs with low-weight, complex geometries, replacing their heavier and more restrictive metal counterparts.”

As the bounds of space travel continue to be pushed, this area of study becomes even more valuable. “When I was doing research for this fellowship application, I looked into return missions where we’re getting samples from the moon and Mars and we’re bringing them all the way back,” says Scott. Just sending one rocket is something that’s already weight constrained, so adding a return rocket only tightens the tolerance.

“The thing that loses out is that you’re trying to bring rocks back,” he says. “And rocks are heavy.” To maximize the outcome of this kind of mission, you need to build your equipment with the right materials with the right properties.

He gives an example of what this might look like on an unmanned mission. “You control everything with electronics and motors.” In order for motors and actuators to move, an electric current passes through a coil, and that uses magnetism to push something. “When you do that, it produces heat, no matter what.” You need to be able to manage this heat so nothing overheats or catches on fire, and do it in the most cost-effective, weight-effective way possible. “Polymers are just the no-brainer for those, especially thermally conductive polymers because you want these to spit off heat as rapidly as possible, that way you can use them to the highest level.”

Another application: astronaut clothes, adds Scott’s faculty mentor, Yanfei Xu, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering in UMass Amherst’s College of Engineering. “When the astronauts go to space, they want to wear wearable, flexible, lighter-weight clothes,” she says. “When they do a spacewalk, how can a space suit keep the astronaut as cool or as warm or as comfortable as possible? Clearly, we are aware of polymer-based materials, which have unique properties including being lighter weight, wearable, flexible and comfortable.”

With the support from the Space Grant, Scott’s research will focus on turning polymer insulators into heat conductors and investigating interfacial thermal transport between polymers and fillers in polymeric composites in Xu’s research group.

Xu’s excitement for her student’s success is obvious. “As an educator, I dream to push the next generation of our talents, like Brendan and other students, to go into STEM fields, to consider pursuing higher education. It’s so wonderful to work with young people. They are very creative. Give them the best opportunity to work on the frontier of research and the outcomes will benefit not only our lab, our university, or our country, but the world.”

Article posted in Student Life