The Future of Space: Smart, Stretchy, Skintight Spacesuits

biosuitSpacesuits have come a long way from their humble origins in the 1960s. But despite decades worth of innovation, the basic design remains the same – large, bulky, and limiting to the wearer’s range of movement. Hence why a number of researchers and scientists are looking to create suits that are snugger, more flexible, and more ergonomic. One such group hails from MIT, with a skin-tight design that’s sure to revolutionize the concept of spacesuits.

The team is led by Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT who previewed her Biosuit – playfully described by some as a “spidersuit” – at the TEDWomen event, held in San Fransisco in December of 2013. Referred to as a “second skin” suit, the design incorporates flexible, lightweight material that is lined with “tiny, muscle-like coils.”

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuitSpeaking of the challenges of spacesuit design, and her team’s new concept for one, Dava Newman had the following to say in an interview with MIT news:

With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space. We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials.

Granted, Newman’s design is the first form-fitting spacesuit concept to see the light of day. Back in the 1960’s, NASA began experimenting with a suit that was modeled on human skin, the result of which was the Space Activity Suit (SAS). Instead of an air-filled envelope, the SAS used a skin-tight rubber leotard that clung to astronaut like spandex, pressing in to protect the wearer from the vacuum of space by means of counter pressure.

SAS_spacesuitFor breathing, the suit had an inflatable bladder on the chest and the astronaut wore a simple helmet with an airtight ring seal to keep in pressure. This setup made for a much lighter, more flexible suit that was mechanically far simpler because the breathing system and a porous skin that removed the need for complex cooling systems. The snag with the SAS was that materials in the days of Apollo were much too primitive to make the design practical.

Little progress was made until Dava Newman and her team from MIT combined modern fabrics, computer modelling, and engineering techniques to produce the Biosuit. Though a far more practical counter-pressure suit than its predecessor, it was still plagued by one major drawback – the skintight apparatus was very difficult to put on. Solutions were proposed, such as a machine that would weave a new suit about the wearer when needed, but these were deemed impractical.

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuit-0The new approach incorporates coils formed out of tightly packed, small-diameter springs made of a shape-memory alloy (SMA) into the suit fabric. Memory alloys are metals that can be bent or deformed, but when heated, return to their original shape. In this case, the nickel-titanium coils are formed into a tourniquet-like cuff that incorporates a length of heating wire. When a current is applied, the coil cinches up to provide the proper counter pressure needed for the Biosuit to work.

Bradley Holschuh, a post-doctorate in Newman’s lab, originally came up with the idea of a coil design. In the past, the big hurdle to second-skin spacesuits was how to get astronauts to squeeze in and out of the pressured, skintight suit. Holschuh’s breakthrough was to deploy shape-memory alloy as a technological end-around. To train the alloy, Holschuh wound raw SMA fiber into extremely tight coils and heated them to 450º C (842º F) to fashion an original or “trained” shape.

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuit-3 When the coil cooled to room temperature, it could be stretched out, but when heated to 60º C (140º F), it shrank back into its original shape in what the MIT team compared to a self-closing buckle. As spokespersons from MIT explained:

The researchers rigged an array of coils to an elastic cuff, attaching each coil to a small thread linked to the cuff. They then attached leads to the coils’ opposite ends and applied a voltage, generating heat. Between 60 and 160 C, the coils contracted, pulling the attached threads, and tightening the cuff.

In order to maintain it without continually heating the coils, however, the team needs to come up with some sort of a catch that will lock the coils in place rather than relying on a continuous supply of electricity and needlessly heating up the suit – yet it will still have to be easy to unfasten. Once Newman and her team find a solution to this problem, their suit could find other applications here on Earth.

Image converted using ifftoanyAs Holschuh explained, the applications for this technology go beyond the spacesuit, with applications ranging from the militarized to the medical. But for the moment, the intended purpose is keeping astronauts safe and comfortable:

You could [also] use this as a tourniquet system if someone is bleeding out on the battlefield. If your suit happens to have sensors, it could tourniquet you in the event of injury without you even having to think about it… An integrated suit is exciting to think about to enhance human performance. We’re trying to keep our astronauts alive, safe, and mobile, but these designs are not just for use in space.

Considering the ambitious plans NASA and other government and private space agencies have for the near-future – exploring Mars, mining asteroids, building a settlement on the Moon, etc. – a next-generation spacesuit would certainly come in handy. With new launch systems and space capsules being introduced for just this purpose, it only makes sense that the most basic pieces of equipment get a refit as well.

And be sure to check out this video of Dava Newman showing her Biosuit at the TEDWomen conference last year:


Sources:
gizmag.com, motherboard.vice.com
, newsoffice.mit.edu

Cities of the Future: Building with Bacteria

bio-building1Since the beginning of civilization, building hasn’t evolved much. In fact, archaeological digs show that between the Early Paleolithic and today, construction has moved at a snail’s pace. And while change has certainly sped up within the past few centuries – with mud and stone giving way to bricks and cement and thatch and wood giving way to steel and shingles –  the fundamental techniques and concepts remain largely unchanged.

However, a radical shift may soon be underway where traditional factories will give way to biological ones, and the processing of raw materials using hands and tools will be replaced by an active collaboration between human architects and cells specifically programmed to create building materials. In this new age, biology, rather than machining, will be the determining factor and buildings will be grown, not assembled.

the-livingAlready, biological processes have been used to manufacture medicine and biofuels. But the more robust materials for everyday life – like roofs, beams, floor panels, etc – are still the domain of factories. However, thanks to researchers like David Benjamin – a computational architect, professor at Columbia University, and the principal of the The Living (a New York architectural practice).

The purpose of The Living’s research is to redirect and engineer biological processes and then capture them using computational models. The end result is what is known as “human-cell collaboration”, where humans specify the shape and properties of a desired material and computers translate them into biological models. Patterned “sheets” of bacterial cells are then grown in the lab, determining the final design based on what was encoded in the DNA.

bio-buildingEmerging software, says Benjamin, will soon allow architects to create multi-material objects in a computer, translate these into biological models, and let biology finish the job. This will be done in laboratories, growing them under carefully engineered conditions, or tweaking the DNA to achieve precisely the right result before deploying them to build.

At the moment, Benjamin and his colleagues are working with plant cells known as xylem – the long hollow tubes that transport water in plants. These are being designed as computer models and grown in a Cambridge University lab in conjunction with various species of engineered bacteria. In addition, they are working with sheets of calcium and cellulose, seeking to create structures that will be strong, flexible, and filigreed.

And of course, Benjamin and The Living are hardly alone in their endeavors. Living Foundries Program, for example, is a a Department of Defense initiative that is hoping to hasten the developmental process and create an emergent bio-industry that would create “on-demand” production and shave decades and millions of dollars off the development process.bio-building2Naturally, the process is far from perfect, and could take another decade to become commercially viable. But this is a relatively short time frame given the revolutionary implications. This, in turn, may open up what the former U.S. energy secretary Stephen Chu has called the “glucose economy,” an economic system powered largely by plant-derived sugars grown in tropical countries and shipped around the world, much as we do with petroleum today.

Once factories switch to sugar as a primary energy source, and precisely engineered bacteria become the means of manufacture, the model of human civilization may flip from one powered by fossil fuels to one running largely on biologically captured sunlight. It’s one of the hallmarks of the future, where programmed biology is used to merge the synthetic with the biological and create a “best of both worlds scenario”.

In the meantime, check out this conceptual video by one of Benjamin’s collaborators about the future of bio-building. And be sure to check out some of the The Living’s other projects by clicking here.


Sources: fastcoexist.com, thelivingnewyork.com