World’s Thinnest Materials Set to Advance Space Technology

by | 10. Nov 2023 - 11:24 | Technologies

An international research team is developing high-tech materials based on rare earths for satellite sensors, radiation protection, and quantum computers.

An international research team plans to make the thinnest known materials on earth – so-called 2D materials – usable for space technology. The project, which is being led by the University at Buffalo (UB), New York, has been awarded a three-year grant of 2.4 million dollars by the US Air Force Research Office.

2D materials consist of just a single layer of atoms and have unique properties. For example, the almost transparent materials combine extreme flexibility and mechanical stability with high electrical conductivity. The potential fields of application include semiconductor technologies, sensor technology, quantum computers, and medical technology. 2D materials are currently the subject of intensive research. The best-known representative is the ultra-thin carbon layer graphene. In the project led by the UB, however, the focus is on 2D materials that contain ions of rare earth elements, i.e., electrically charged atoms. Due to their properties, they can be used for several applications in space, including energy storage, photocatalysis, satellite sensors, quantum communication, protection against cosmic radiation, and high-energy radiation as fuel. Due to the high costs and limited mass, space technology must be multifunctional, the researchers emphasize. Machine learning – a field of artificial intelligence – and quantum mechanical modeling should help develop these specialized high-tech materials tailored to the extreme conditions in space.

The project addresses previously unsolved requirements in space technology and, at the same time, aims to improve the fundamental understanding of 2D materials, says Dr. Paras Prasad, Managing Director of the UB Institute for Lasers, Photonics, and Biophotonics. In addition to the University at Buffalo, Michigan State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi are involved in the project, which scientists from the US Department of Defense also support.

More on raw materials in space research: Rare earths could also bring a breakthrough in another challenge of space travel – supplying astronauts with oxygen. Meanwhile, a NASA project is researching how technology metals could help in the search for extraterrestrial life in the future. However, raw materials such as indium and tellurium are already playing a decisive role in space exploration, for example through their use in the construction of the James Webb Telescope.

Photo: iStock/Peter Hansen

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