CNL’s expertise in materials sciences, radiobiology and post-irradiation analysis will be utilized to produce strong, lightweight nanomaterials to enable safer space travel
Chalk River, ON – May 16, 2023 – Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), Canada’s premier nuclear science and technology laboratory, is pleased to announce that it has signed a contribution agreement with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to develop and test novel, multi-purpose materials that have the potential to improve the safety and viability of long-term space travel. Funded through the CSA’s Space Technology Development Program (STDP) [22STDPQ08], the $1 million project will contribute to Canada’s ongoing efforts to enable space exploration, by advancing the development of materials that can withstand the extreme conditions in space, while safely shielding spacecraft personnel and equipment.
Outer space is an incredibly hazardous environment, which necessitates the use of materials that are not only lightweight but that can also endure harsh conditions, such as extreme temperatures, while providing radiation shielding and excellent mechanical properties. In recent years, CNL has been conducting research on nanocomposite materials in radiation environments in collaboration with the National Research Council of Canada. The STDP initiative aims to explore novel approaches to enhance the characteristics of such nanomaterials, making them suitable for space applications.
“This project requires expertise across many different disciplines, including materials sciences, radioactive materials management, post-irradiation analysis, and radiobiology, and CNL is one of the only places in Canada that has the resources to conduct this research,” commented Dr. Jeff Griffin, CNL’s Vice-President of Science and Technology. “We have a multidisciplinary team of experts and the necessary equipment and facilities ready to design and test these materials, and to assess their functionality, durability and performance in these types of extreme environments. Overall, it’s an incredibly exciting project, knowing that our work could help protect Canadian astronauts and play a role in future space missions.”
The nanotube materials proposed for investigation comprise low-mass elements that satisfy the weight constraints for space expeditions, in conjunction with tactical elements and configurations that mitigate the impact of galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) and solar particle events (SPE), which are two primary sources of radiation in space, along with secondary radiation generated by the interaction of these radiation sources with materials present in spacecraft, such as neutrons and gamma-rays. The novel materials are also anticipated to possess unique electromagnetic characteristics that could potentially serve as a safeguard for electronic equipment installed on board the ship. Overall, the project will see CNL perform modelling to optimize such nanomaterials for their various shielding performances, as well as extensive and rigorous testing of their properties before and after irradiation, and finally, the experimental determination of their shielding efficiencies.
“The goal of this project is to develop materials not only with radiation shielding properties but also with good mechanical strength, oxidation resistance, thermal stability at high temperatures, and, of course, low weight. When all of these features are combined, these materials are ideal for enabling safer and more efficient space exploration,” said Zahra Yamani, a research scientist in CNL’s Applied Physics section. “We will employ a systematic approach that combines modelling and experimentation to investigate their applicability.”
The project comes as public interest in space travel continues to grow here in Canada, and as the country increasingly participates in international collaborations to advance space exploration. Among other projects, Canada is developing an autonomous robotic system, known as Canadarm3, which will be used to maintain NASA’s Lunar Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit. It was also just announced that CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen will be one of four astronauts who are poised to fly around the moon next year as part of the NASA-led Artemis program, an international collaboration that is designed to send humans farther into space than ever before, including distant destinations like Mars. This growing momentum and interest in space exploration signals good news for CNL, who has seen its work increasingly being used to support research related to space travel.
That work includes a project within CNL’s New Technology Initiatives Funding (NTIF) program that examined the systematic effects of gamma, proton and neutron radiation on the physical properties of nanotube materials, and which would go on to serve as the basis for CNL’s application to the CSA for STDP funding. It also encompasses a number of activities carried out on behalf of the CSA, such as a recent project funded through Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s (AECL) Federal Nuclear Science & Technology (FNST) Work Plan, which qualified the health risks for astronauts associated with deep space radiation exposure. Other projects include the development of a novel neutron detector to help quantify the neutron dose astronauts will receive in space, and the creation of a novel methodology for mission planning around extreme solar particle events, which are of particular concern for acute radiation sickness for crew in deep space. And many other CNL projects, such as work to help advance the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), which have the potential to provide safe and reliable power to space shuttles or planetary installations, could have long-term applications to Canada’s space program.
To learn more about the CSA’s Space Technology Development Program, please visit https://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/funding-programs/programs/stdp/. For more information on CNL, including its work in materials sciences and radiobiology, please visit www.cnl.ca.
As Canada’s premier nuclear science and technology laboratory, and working under the direction of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), CNL is a world leader in the development of innovative nuclear science and technology products and services. Guided by an ambitious corporate strategy known as Vision 2030, CNL fulfills three strategic priorities of national importance – restoring and protecting the environment, advancing clean energy technologies, and contributing to the health of Canadians.
By leveraging the assets owned by AECL, CNL also serves as the nexus between government, the nuclear industry, the broader private sector and the academic community. CNL works in collaboration with these sectors to advance innovative Canadian products and services towards real-world use, including carbon-free energy, cancer treatments and other therapies, non-proliferation technologies and waste management solutions.
To learn more about CNL, please visit www.cnl.ca.
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Photo caption: Astronauts and astronaut candidates from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency pose for a photograph in front of NASA’s Artemis I Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft atop the mobile launcher on the pad at Launch Complex 39B on Aug. 28, 2022.