Health and Science

Freeze-casting materials in space: Meeting the challenges of vacuums and microgravity

Northwestern University’s SpaceICE team, led by Northwestern Professor David Dunand, is preparing to test freeze-casting of materials in space, in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Bradley University. Fabricating materials is essential for a journey to Mars or for future space colonies. The SpaceICE team is pioneering the freeze-casting instrumentation for the small CubeSat, a cubic satellite that UIUC is building for the 2018 NASA-funded mission. Medill reporter Lakshmi Chandrasekaran is embedding with the researchers as the mission efforts rev up this summer.

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

I was meeting with Krysti Scotti, who kick- started the Northwestern University’s SpaceICE project in the Dunand Lab while she was still an undergraduate. She just finished her bachelor’s degree this spring and is starting work on her Ph.D. as SpaceICE readies for a space launch.

While waiting for Krysti to arrive at the lab, I met with another of Dunand’s first-year Ph.D. students, Stephen Wilke, as he completed freeze-casting experiments with iron oxide nanopowder. We chatted for a bit and I learned that his wife (a fifth year Ph.D. student in environmental sciences at NU) is pursuing a career in science writing in California through a mass communication fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is a small world and I often seem to be running into Ph.D.s, pursuing science communication as a career! That’s what I am doing in graduate school at Medill after working as a science reporter with a Ph.D. in mathematics. The graduate program gives us a chance to embed with science research teams to produce in-depth stories and I am embedding with SpaceICE.

Krysti arrived a bit late for our 11 a.m. meeting and dashed into the lab! “I overslept,” she says. Considering, that she was up until 6 a.m. working on the research, I am not too surprised.

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Severe storms lab developing remote flash flood sensing system

By Puja Bhattacharjee

Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center, the oldest church camp in Oklahoma, hosts more than 50,000 kids and teens who come for summer camp each year. Falls Creek originates from the Washita River in Murray County and flows directly into the campgrounds named for it.

But flash floods now menace the camp and the facility all but closed after a 2015 flood left a few hundred campers stranded for more than 36 hours. So far, scientists do not know what caused the flooding.

With warming global temperatures, though, flash floods are becoming an increasing threat across many area of the US. So on a balmy April morning this spring, three researchers from the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Okla., drive more than 60 miles to the camp in a black pickup truck crammed with instruments in big boxes.

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Saint John the Baptist gets a makeover at the Art Institute

By Puja Bhattacharjee

A newly restored “Scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist” by Bartolommeo di Giovanni is among the paintings and objects on display in “Saints and Heroes: Art of Medieval and Renaissance Europe,” which opened on March 20 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Scholars believe the painting adorned a Florentine home in the late 1400s. It was a spalliera painting– a painting hung at shoulder height. It was originally part of a series of paintings that would have decorated a room.

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Building a better tornado warning system

By Puja Bhattacharjee

People start trickling into the National Severe Storms Laboratory holding coffee cups and laptops. By 8 a.m., eight people fill a room for the Spring Experiment. The laboratory in Norman, Okla., is open all year. But now it’s tornado season.

Researchers, forecasters, software developers, IT personnel and scientists from different parts of the country have come together for the annual experimental program held during the spring severe weather season to test and evaluate new techniques and tools for hazardous weather forecasting.

One of the goals this year is to continue testing software that could possibly eradicate false alarms, issue more accurate and detailed warnings for tornadoes and other severe weather. “The false alarm ratio of a one-hour forecast of a tornado should be smaller in the future if the research pans out – meaning fewer one-hour forecasts of tornadoes will be wrong,” says Greg Stumpf, who heads this program.

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Making materials in space – freeze it first

This summer a team of Northwestern University undergraduates will finalize instrumentation designs for a NASA satellite mission that will test the manufacturing of materials while in orbit.  The students are building the device for SpaceICE to study freeze-casting, a process that could eventually be used to build materials on other planets in space colonies.

“In terms of science fiction, the perfect use [of freeze-casting] would be to use soil on Mars and on the moon” to make bricks or other necessities. “We hope we will impact the creation of the first space habitats from planetary sources,” said materials science Professor David Dunand, the lead advisor for the SpaceICE project.

Student researchers move step by step to prepare for NASA launch

By Lily Williams

A combined team of undergraduates at Northwestern University and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are working together to build a satellite and instruments to test the fabrication of building materials in space.

The NASA mission is due to launch into orbit in the summer of 2018. It has two parts: a box-like satellite called a CubeSat (UIUC’s job) and a payload of instruments (NU’s job at the SpaceICE lab) to test freeze-casting . The instrumentation will freeze suspensions and study the corrugated structures of materials left behind in the freezing and thawing process. The undergraduate-only collaboration will determine if freeze-casting could be a viable mechanism for fabricating many different materials, from fuel cells to cocoa tablets, both on Earth and eventually on other planets.

The work is complex, rigorous and constantly evolving, especially because, as students graduate, they need to be replaced and re-trained from the ground up. Each university team not only has to design and test their own product, but also make sure that CubeSat and the SpaceICE payload work together.

Below are some photos that attempt to chronicle the day-to-day tasks of both teams, at NU and UIUC, where the satellite makers  need to configure their spacecraft for the instrumentation.

Photo at top: Northwestern materials science and engineering senior Jonathan Young spoons his suspension into the collection vestibule of the freezing instrument SpaceICE has specially designed for their research. (Lily Williams/MEDILL)

Video: Chicago co-ops gain momentum as sustainability, locavore movements grow

By Grace Austin

Today’s food co-ops in Chicago are not your hippie commune cooperatives of the 1960s and 1970s. They are for-profit businesses that are focused on local, healthy and sustainable produce and goods. But they are keeping the democratic nature of a traditional co-op as well as the emphasis on community engagement and philanthropy work.

Within the past few years, there has been a resurgence of co-ops across the country. Currently, there are about 150 that belong to the National Co+op Grocers association and about 130 are in the start-up phase.

In Northern Illinois, there are co-ops opening in Elgin, Rockford, McHenry, and Batavia.

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Undergraduate SpaceICE researcher wins prestigious engineering award

By Lily Williams

Undergraduate materials science senior Lauren Kearney heads to Northwestern University’s SpaceICE lab on most days to work on the design for the team’s freeze-casting instrumentation that will launch in a NASA mission next year.

Kearney won one of two of Northwestern’s Hilliard Awards for leadership, scholarship and service. Each year, the university’s materials science and engineering department awards two of its undergraduates the prestigious  award.

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Robot Revolution comes to Chicago

By Alissa Anderegg

Last week, the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI) unveiled its latest exhibit, Robot Revolution. The national touring exhibit features 40 robots from around the world—including Japan, Poland, Denmark, Germany, China, Canada, South Korea and across the United States. Visitors of all ages can interact with the robots, which are divided into different aspects of robotics: cooperation, skills, smarts and location.

The exhibit also aims to increase student interest and involvement in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields through hands-on interaction with the robots on display. Robot Revolution will run now through February 4, 2018.

Photo at top: RoboThesbian, a life-sized humanoid robot, greets visitors as they enter The Museum of Science and Industry’s latest exhibit, Robot Revolution.(Alissa Anderegg/MEDILL)

Chicago River enthusiasts take a group photo to focus on conservation

By Allie Burger

April is Overflow Action Month on the Chicago River. Because of how the city’s sewer system was designed, sewage can enter the river during heavy rains when the drains overflow.

To promote awareness of the issue, and to encourage water conservation, Friends of the Chicago River invited residents to “photobomb” the river.

Photo at top: The event included almost 200 participants downtown. (Friends of the Chicago River)