PITTSBURGH (October 9,
2019) … Magnesium and magnesium alloys have the potential to become a
revolutionary material for a variety of industries because of their lightweight
structure and ability to quickly biodegrade in water or inside the human body.
Researchers, however, are still struggling to process this very reactive metal
to eliminate defects that accelerate corrosion.
Prashant N. Kumta, the Edward R. Weidlein Chair Professor of Bioengineering
at the University of Pittsburgh, believes that a microgravity environment may
positively affect the solidification mechanisms of these alloys. He received
grant funding from theInternational Space
Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory to examine microgravity’s influence on his lab’s novel
patented magnesium alloys.
The team is partnering with
Techschot, Inc., the commercial hardware facility partner that operates the high-temperature
SUBSA furnace aboard the ISS National Lab. Once in the microgravity environment
of the space station, the alloy composition will be melted in the SUBSA
furnace, and then solidified for further analysis.
This is the first selected
project in the new Biomedical
Research Alliance - a
multi-year collaboration between the ISS U.S. National Laboratory and the
McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine to push the limits of biomedical
research and development aboard the orbiting laboratory.
“The alloy’s improved
mechanical properties, ability to store charge, and lightweight structure will
make it an attractive material for aerospace, energy storage, and automotive
applications,” said Kumta.
He believes that this
research will play a major role in the economical manufacturing of magnesium
alloys, particularly in additive manufacturing and customized 3D printing of
“Magnesium and magnesium
alloys are extremely light, with a density similar to natural bone,” explained
Kumta. “They are two-fold lighter than titanium alloys and five-fold lighter
than stainless steel and cobalt-chrome alloys – all of which are materials
typically used in today’s implants and frameworks. Thus, the development of
these materials could open new International Space Station applications as a
lightweight structural framework material.”
Because of their weight and
earth abundance, the alloys may also prove to be beneficial for climate change
and energy storage.
“Fixtures or accessories in
the aerospace industry - such as seats and lighting - that are made from
magnesium alloys will be lighter which will consequently reduce fuel
consumption,” said Kumta. “These benefits will help reduce costs and decrease
greenhouse gas emissions – an advantage that can be applied to the automotive
industry which accounts for a large amount of emissions in the United States.
The material could also be used as a rechargeable battery similar to
The magnesium alloys
developed by Kumta’s team may also serve as a cheaper and improved
bioresorbable material for implanted medical devices. This type of material,
which can be broken down and absorbed by the body, has a variety of
applications in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, such as implanted
scaffolds that help guide the growth of new tissue.
post-processing steps to minimize defects, magnesium alloys processed on earth
react in a physiological fluid environment and form large amounts of hydrogen
gas, resulting in gas pockets that must be aspirated by a syringe,” said Kumta.
“We believe that processing the material in microgravity will considerably
minimize or perhaps even eliminate melting and casting defects. As a result,
the alloys will likely exhibit improved corrosion resistance, resulting in
soluble hydrogen and salt products with better bioresorption response when
implanted as scaffolds. Further, expensive post-processing will likely be
eliminated, thereby reducing costs by almost 50 percent.”
Kumta, who holds secondary
appointments in chemical and petroleum engineering, mechanical engineering and
materials science, the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine, and oral
biology, will work with a team of researchers from his laboratory in the
Swanson School of Engineering, including Bioengineering Research Assistant
Professors Abhijit Roy, Moni Kanchan Datta, and Oleg Velikokhatnyi.
The research team hopes
that this work will lead to the processing of better quality magnesium alloys,
which will be free of many of the defects that form in terrestrially processed
alloys, ultimately enabling improved functionality on Earth with significantly
reduced processing steps and costs.
“This work offers a
tremendous opportunity for advancing the science and technology of microgravity
metal casting, widening the translational potential of the versatile
magnesium-based systems for biomedical, energy, and aerospace applications,”
said Kumta. “Magnesium has not yet been studied in space so this project gives
us the chance to explore a new frontier in scalable manufacturing of high
quality magnesium and magnesium alloys in space.”
Contact: Leah Russell