NASA taps NYIT for critical rocket-propulsion sensors

Having a blast: An NYIT mechanical engineering professor is helping to develop operational sensors that can withstand the force of NASA rocket-propulsion tests.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A New York Institute of Technology engineering professor is contributing to the creation of specialized sensors that could help test the next generation of space propulsion systems – and one day blast into the void themselves.

Fang Li, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at NYIT’s School of Engineering and Computing Sciences in Old Westbury, is partnering with X-Wave Innovations Inc., a Maryland-based R&D firm, on the development of an embedded sensor system capable of measuring temperature, pressure and other stimuli affecting rocket propulsion engine systems in all their full-thrust glory.

The research could prove critical to NASA, which needs embedded sensors with wireless data-communications capabilities for ground testing, flight testing and in-service monitoring.

Li and X-Wave Innovations – which specializes in defense, homeland security, transportation and energy applications – were jointly awarded a $125,000 Small Business Technology Transfer grant by the space agency to conduct the research.

Through the 12-month Phase I, Li and her School of Engineering and Computing Sciences students are working up an embedded sensor system that demonstrates a “proposed technique” for passive, wireless, multi-parameter measurements, including work in high-temperature environments, according to NYIT.

Li brings to the table long experience with high-temperature piezoelectric materials – involving electricity generated by pressure – and surface acoustic-wave sensors; X-Wave Innovations contributes its radio-frequency identification expertise, along with a longstanding strategy for commercializing technologies developed through NASA programs.

The primary goal is an embedded sensor system with a “highly flexible instrumentation solution” that can “monitor remote or inaccessible measurement locations for NASA’s rocket propulsion test facilities,” according to NYIT.

It’s no mean feat, according to LI, who noted that obtaining cost-effective and reliable performance assessments of active propulsion engines presents significant technological challenges. She and her students are developing a system that includes embedded sensor tags powered by an RF signal, eliminating the need for an additional power supply or external circuitry.

Once they clear that technological hurdle, they will use an “RF interrogation system” to remotely collect temperature, pressure and strain data through passive SAW sensors – and all of it tough enough to survive environments that would obliterate conventional electronics.

Fang Li: Sensor and sensibility.

“The maintenance-free sensor system can operate for long periods, providing valuable data about the structural health and operation conditions of the engine components,” Li said Tuesday.

The Phase I effort is focused on validating the proposed technology. Li and her X-Wave Innovations partners hope that’s enough to qualify for Phase II, involving the actual construction of the SAW-RFID system and a demonstration of its capabilities in extreme environments.

First, Li and her team of graduate students will model and develop the component sensor systems in NYIT-Old Westbury’s Class 10,000 Cleanroom. The first of its kind in Nassau County, the cleanroom – part of the School of Engineering and Computing Science’s Materials Science and Nanotechnology Lab – is designed to limit particles up to one-half micron in size (really, really small) to 10,000 per cubic foot of air.

The cleanroom’s sputtering machine and microscopy tools – used by researchers to nano-engineer unique composite materials for everything from microchips to implantable medical devices – are ideally suited to this particular NASA mission, noted School of Engineering and Computing Sciences Dean Nada Anid.

“This prestigious NASA grant is a perfect example of collaboration between our faculty and industry on important technological advances,” Anid said in a statement. “It offers a tremendous growth opportunity for both Professor Li and her students in mechanical and aerospace engineering.”