Another invention from space science
For those who like to keep score when NASA research produces something of major practical benefit, here is NASA’s choice for their Invention of the Year for 2007: Polyimide foam. NASA picked this winner from a long list of candidates, apparently. Polyimide foam is a kind of high-efficiency insulator, capable of resisting sound, heat and cold, and was developed for applications in space. Now that polyimide foam exists, everyone else who builds things needing insulation is probably going to be asking about how soon they can place some orders, for industrial R&D at least, and very likely for large scale mass production in future. Might engines, coolant and refrigeration technology, and thermal barriers in microchips require better insulators? I do believe they do, along with lots of other machines.
“Polyimide Foam” can be flexible or rigid, structural or non-structural and is highly durable. The foam’s density can be varied for a variety of uses including fire protection since it generates no harmful combustion products and has been tested at temperatures above 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
For future NASA exploration vehicles, the foam could be used in applications where reduced weight and increased durability are necessary for missions to the moon or Mars. Several commercial companies have purchased hundreds of thousands of board feet for various applications because it is lighter and safer than earlier materials. The foam outperforms similar materials currently used in the aerospace industry.
How many new products, innovations and jobs will polyimide yield? Who knows. How many did the web yield? The web was invented by CERN physicists who wanted a more efficient means of communicating data amongst research groups. The computer itself was invented to solve problems in missile – i.e. rocket – targeting. Here are some innovations that led directly from NASA-funded research: kidney dialysis machines, CAT scanners, applications in freeze-drying food, aluminum/Mylar insulation (car/truck engines), improved water-purification technology (you’re welcome, Third World), surface enhancement coatings (common in ovens), better and faster digital signal-processing (digital cameras, CAT and MRI medical scanners), vacuum metallized insulators (REI parkas), cordless power tools, and cool-suits (you’re welcome, firefighters). And those are just from the Apollo program.
NASA helped make all those – and many other – applications happen by offering competitive grants and contract bids to private corporations and academic researchers, as a means of solving tricky problems in space. Back here on the ground, everybody got cool stuff as a result.
And all that for less than 1% of the Federal budget. That’s quite a bargain.