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Acoustic barrel grows new materials in space

What grows in space, is about the size of a baseball and is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars?  Jacques Guigne is waiting to find out.
Image: SpaceDRUM
The SpaceDRUMS Processing Chamber uses sound fingers to suspend materials in the container as they grow in space.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

What grows in space, is about the size of a baseball and is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Jacques Guigne is waiting to find out.

The research scientist and founder of Guigne International in Newfoundland owns a device, now aboard the international space station, that uses beams of sound to suspend materials for processing.

"The beams of sound energy work like invisible fingers that gently push the floating sample into the center of the container so that it doesn't touch the walls," explained Guigne.

Guigne told Discovery News the fingers of sound "are very intelligent in terms of how they are manipulated."

The primary advantage of using sound beams to hold materials in space is so that they can be processed cleanly, without any contamination from a container.

"With no gravity and nothing touching the walls (of a container) you can have a very pure structure. Hence, it's of great value," said Guigne, who pegs the price of a space-formed sample in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the type of material produced.

Those used for semiconductors, for example, would be among the most valuable, he added.

"If you have a steady base of manufacturing then you can see a good return," Guigne said.

Sound-suspended samples can be grown to relatively large sizes in space, about the diameter of a golf ball or baseball, which dwarfs the millimeter-sized materials previously produced in microgravity.

A ball of pure glass, for example, can be sliced and sold for a variety of commercial and manufacturing uses, though Guigne says at this point he considers his proprietary and patented technology to be a test bed.

The project grew out of Guigne's expertise with sonar systems developed for land and sea applications. He started working with NASA 17 years ago with a proposal to develop an acoustic levitation device.

The technology matured into using beams rather than standing waves, then developed into a furnace for heating and creating entirely new materials.

He calls the contraption Space-DRUMS, an acronym for Dynamically Responding Ultrasonic Matrix System. The device uses 20 beams of sound arranged in a dodecahedron reactor filled with argon gas, which doesn't react with materials and which can serve to transfer sound energy from the reactor's walls to the sample.

The first samples to be processed aboard the station are expected to be porous glass ceramic materials. They start off as pellets of compressed grey powder.

"It looks like nothing," Julie Robinson, NASA's station program scientist, told Discovery News. "But when you heat it, it turns into a ceramic material. When you do that in space, you have the potential to get the molecules to organize in such a way so that they're porous."

"Space-DRUMS can process almost any material you'd want to model without a container," she added.

Space-DRUMS was scheduled to be launched to the space station in 2003, but was delayed by the Columbia accident, which halted station construction for several years.

The last pieces of the machine were flown to the station aboard shuttle Discovery, which arrived Sunday for a nine-day mission. Japan's new cargo ship, which is scheduled to make its debut flight on Sept. 10, will be toting additional samples for processing.