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The heat is on

Coatings in space


Technology has taken incredible quantum leaps since man last set foot on the moon in 1972. But the challenges brought about by our enduring fascination with the cosmos simply demand that innovation keeps pace with imagination.

For example, the construction of any permanent lunar structures will require the use of an array of fantastical equipment and materials, most of which probably hasn’t even been invented yet. The same can be said for future spacecraft design, although NASA has already ordered construction of the Orion – described in 2005 as being “Apollo on steroids.” The craft is designed to take a crew of six to the International Space Station and later a group of four to the moon.

A larger cargo rocket – Ares V – is also being planned. It will be able to lift as much as 150 tons into orbit, including the booster rocket, lander and other hardware needed for a moon expedition. It means the space shuttle’s days are numbered, with the remaining orbiters (Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor) due to be retired by the end of 2010.

So what happens now? What lessons learned from the last two decades of space travel can be applied to future exploration? One area where AkzoNobel is qualified to speculate is in the field of fire-protective coatings. The company’s Chartek® range of products is based on technology which was not only used during the Apollo missions, but which has also been employed by the space shuttle program. The Chartek fireproofing formulation has since been adopted by the oil and gas industries, while AkzoNobel has also introduced a new intumescent (expanding) coating called Interchar®, geared more towards high-rise buildings and public structures.

“Cosmic travel involves severe shifts in extreme temperatures, from the cold of space itself to the intense heat of reentry,” explains Richard Holliday, Business Development Manager for the Chartek product line within the company’s Marine and Protective Coatings business. “So as well as being incredibly lightweight, any coating used on a new spacecraft with similar reuse capabilities such as the shuttle must be able to withstand the thermal shocks of both very low and very high temperatures.

Existing fire protection coating technology such as Chartek gets consumed while it’s providing the fire protection; it’s absorbing the energy as well as swelling up and insulating against the heat of the fire. So the challenge for space tourism would be to develop a reusable fire resistant coating. That would certainly be the Holy Grail, a type of coating which you could burn again and again.”

The temperature produced on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere has been known to reach 5,000° Fahrenheit, more than half the surface temperature of the sun. So heat-shielding will always be needed. But there are also other considerations, such as what coatings might be needed for buildings on the moon. “Any communities, be they in space or on the surface of the moon, would need fire protection in the way that any normal building structures have fire protection,” continues Holliday. “But you start getting into a whole new realm, because other types of coatings would also be worth thinking about. For example, depending on the environment, they could have insulating or heat reflective properties. So there are various applications
which would be worth serious investigation.”