Materials science plays an important role in NASA’s research. While a sturdy metal construction is already key to spaceflight and aeronautical engineering, “smart metals” could change the way airplanes are made. “Shape-memory alloys” are currently used in some industrial applications, but their shapeshifting properties are a perfect fit for aerospace. Othmane Benafan, materials research engineer at NASA Glenn Research Center and finalist in the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, says that the material could make planes more efficient.
“We all go on an aircraft and we see wings that have parts that move. We also see sections of the wings that don’t move. Those relate to what the aircraft needs to do, some of it’s to performance, some for other areas of the aircraft.” Benafan said. “We want to make sure that we can use the metals like a motor, in a way where you can still move the aircraft control surfaces, or move the wingtip area that you can’t move now. It allows you to move it and reap the benefits. There’s a lot of benefit when it comes to drag, when it comes to efficiency, and I think shape memory alloys can really enable this new kind of aviation.”