Neutrons open window to probe cosmic glass

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A team of scientists from nine institutions in government, academia and industry discovered that many types of glass have a similar atomic structure and can be successfully manufactured in space. The image shows a space glass bead. Credit: Phoenix Pleasant/ORNL, US Department of Energy

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A team of scientists from nine institutions in government, academia and industry discovered that many types of glass have a similar atomic structure and can be successfully manufactured in space. The image shows a space glass bead. Credit: Phoenix Pleasant/ORNL, US Department of Energy

Thanks to human ingenuity and zero gravity, we are reaping important benefits from science in space. Consider smart phones with built-in navigation systems and cameras.

Such transformative technologies seem to merge with the rhythm of our daily lives overnight. But they came about after years of discovery and development of materials that can withstand harsh environments outside of our atmosphere. They develop from decades of laying the foundations of basic science to understand how atoms in different materials behave under different conditions.

Building on this past, a global team of researchers has set a new benchmark for future experiments creating materials in space, not for space. The team included members from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge and Argonne National Laboratories, Materials Development, Inc., NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, Alfred University, and the University of New Mexico. Together, they discovered that many types of glass, including ones that could be developed for next-generation optical devices, have a similar atomic structure and arrangement and can be successfully made in space.

The team’s report is published in the journal npj Microgravity.

“The idea is to get a sense of the mechanisms behind space manufacturing, which can lead to materials that aren’t necessarily available on Earth,” said Jörg Neufeind, who joined ORNL in 2004 to build an instrument called NOMAD , at the laboratory’s Spallation Neutron Source (SNS). NOMAD, the world’s fastest neutron diffractometer, helps scientists measure the arrangement of atoms by seeing how neutrons bounce off them. NOMAD is one of 20 tools at SNS that help scientists answer big questions and drive countless innovations, such as drugs that more effectively treat diseases, more reliable airplane and rocket engines, cars that run better on gas and batteries that are safer, charge faster and last longer.

JAXA operators on Earth made and melted glass aboard the International Space Station (ISS) by remote control using a levitator. Levitators are used to suspend samples of materials during experiments to avoid disturbance from contact with other materials.

After the next ISS mission ended months later and the space glass was brought back to Earth, the researchers used a combination of techniques involving neutrons, X-rays and powerful microscopes to measure and compare the glass made and melted in heaven to that on Earth.

“We found that with containerless techniques like the levitator, we can create unconventional glasses in microgravity,” said Takehiko Ishikawa of JAXA, who pioneered the electrostatic levitator used to make the glass beads aboard the ISS.

The researchers relied on NOMAD at SNS to probe the glass samples with neutrons and beams at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source to probe the samples with X-rays. Both SNS and APS are user facilities of the DOE Office of Science.

“There’s so much material that you can fly to space and back, and that was actually one of the reasons NOMAD was so well-suited for this experiment,” said Stephen Wilke of Materials Development Inc. and Visiting Scientist at Argonne. “We were getting back only single glass beads about an eighth of an inch in diameter, which are very difficult to measure in terms of atomic structure. Because NOMAD excels at measuring extremely small samples, it allowed us to easily compare single beads we made in the lab with those made on the space station.”

The secrets of glass

It turns out that the glass is not so clear. Unlike crystalline solids such as salt, glass atoms do not have a uniform structure. Its unusual atomic arrangement, although remarkably stable, is perhaps best described as a random network of molecules that share coordinate atoms. Neither entirely solid nor entirely liquid, glass also comes in a variety of forms, including polymer, oxide, and metal, such as for eyeglass lenses, optical fibers, and hardware for deep space missions.

In 2022, Neuefeind, Wilke and Rick Weber, an industry glass expert, experimented with two oxides of neodymium and titanium and found potential for optical applications. The combination of these two elements shows unusual strengths not seen in similar research campaigns. These findings led them to continue their ongoing research with NASA.

“[The experiment in 2022] taught us something really remarkable,” said Weber of Materials Development Inc. “One of the glasses has a mesh that is completely different from the normal four-coordinate mesh typical of silica. These glasses have a six-coordinate grid. They are really there. It’s exciting from a glass science perspective. But from a practical perspective, it also means more opportunities to do new things with optical materials and new types of devices.”

Scientists often use neutrons and X-rays in parallel to collect data that no other techniques can produce, allowing us to understand the arrangement of atoms of different elements in a sample. Neutrons helped the team see the lighter elements in space glass, such as oxygen, while X-rays helped them see the heavier elements, such as neodymium and titanium. If significant differences existed between space glass and terrestrial glass, they would probably be manifested in the oxide sublattice or arrangement of oxygen atoms, in the distribution of heavy atoms, or both.

Neutrons will become increasingly important tools for unlocking the mysteries of matter as scientists explore new frontiers beyond space.

“We need to understand not only the effects of space on matter, but also its effects on how things form,” Neufeind said. “Because of their unique properties, neutrons are part of solving this kind of puzzle.”

More info:
Stephen K. Wilke et al, Effects of microgravity on non-equilibrium melt processing of neodymium titanate: thermophysical properties, atomic structure, glass formation and crystallization, npj Microgravity (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41526-024-00371-x

Log information:
npj Microgravity

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