July 28, 1998 Research in low gravity has taken an important first step toward making metal products used in homes, automobiles and aircraft less expensive, safer and more durable.
Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., and industry are partnering with NASA to develop the first accurate computer model predictions of molten metals and molding materials used in a manufacturing process called casting. Cast alloy parts are formed by mixing and pouring melted metals into a mold.
The first commercial use of the new computer information is being made by Howmet Industries of Whitehall, Mich., to more precisely design and cast aircraft turbine blades.
In a similar activity, Ford Motor Company's casting plant in Cleveland, Ohio, is using the information developed by the new computer models to improve the casting process of automobile and light truck engine blocks.
"We're doing the long-range research that industry really needs to improve its final products," said Dr. Tony Overfelt, director of the Solidification Design Center at Auburn University. "We're benefiting the American public who pays for the research and uses the products."
Cast metal parts are used in 90 percent of all durable goods such as washing machines, refrigerators, stoves, lawn mowers, cars, boats and aircraft. Sales of cast parts in the United States alone total $25-30 billion a year, according to the American Foundrymen's Society in Des Plaines, Ill.
"The NASA and Auburn University-led research project on turbine blade castings has enhanced our capabilities, helped us realize a cost savings and accelerated the development cycle for rocket hardware," said Dr. Thomas Tom, Director of Advanced Technology for the Howmet Corporation.
"Partnering with NASA offers unique research opportunities to improve methods of production used in the foundry industry to enhance the quality of castings," said American Foundrymen's Society Director of Research, Dr. Joe Santner. He added, "Advanced research into new processes makes casting more affordable, reliable and expands their utility."
Also, Anter Corporation in Pittsburgh, Penn., Thermophysical Properties Research Laboratory Inc. in West Lafayette, Ind., PCC Airfoils Inc. of Beachwood, Ohio, and the American Foundrymen's Society, Inc., participated in the Auburn University-led casting research consortium.
High-temperature metal alloy parts for the aerospace and auto industry can make aircraft and vehicles stronger, lighter and more efficient, but casting typically requires three to four years to develop an effective process.
"We started with experiments on the ground," Overfelt said. "Then went aboard a NASA KC-135 aircraft flying an arc pattern in low-gravity to refine our research. Our goal," he added, "is to continue to produce accurate measurements for all the alloys used by the casting industry. This information can be used by American manufacturers to standardize metal-mixing 'recipes' and to compete more effectively in the worldwide market."
Auburn University is one of NASA's 10 Commercial Space Centers. These centers serve as a focal point for NASA partnerships with industry and universities, encouraging unique space-related research opportunities to develop new products and services.
NASA's Commercial Space Center program is managed by the Space Product Development Office of the Microgravity Research Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Note to Editors: In-person interviews with NASA, industry and university researchers are available. Please contact Steve Roy of the Marshall Center Media Relations Office at 256-544-6535. Interviews are also available via telephone, NASA/TV live satellite link or e-mail.
More information about NASA's Space Product Development Office is available on the World Wide Web at http://microgravity.msfc.nasa.gov/MICROGRAVITY/SPD.html.
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