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Defying Gravity: One Man’s Quest to Develop ZBLAN Glass in Space

April 26th, 2012

How would you feel about having your product launched into space?

That is exactly what Dr. Martin Castillo from Queensland University of Technology’s science and engineering faculty has to look forward to. Dr. Castillo is a researcher for the university’s micro-gravity drop tower and has partnered with the United States Air Force to fund research in the development of ZBLAN glass.

This special glass will also be the first QUT project to be launched into space.

ZBLAN glass is the most stable fluoride glass known and is most commonly used to make into optical fiber. The advantage of ZBLAN over other glass, such as silica, is superior infrared transmittance.

According to Castillo, the glass contains a variety of heavy metals that upon cooling “create internal stresses which lead to crystallization of the material, an undesired property for glass.”

‘True ZBLAN glass fibers can only be made in the absence of gravity,” Castillo said.

Working with the material in space allows for the absence of gravity and the ability to overcome the crystallization issues.

The Importance of ZBLAN Glass

We live in a telecommunications whirlwind. However fast our connections are now, we are always looking for faster, better, stronger products and networks.

The glass could revolutionize the way we make fibers for telecommunications and medical imaging tools. Dr. Castillo has found that there is little to no signal loss occurring within the material.

“Signals would be able to be transmitted over much greater distances than in current silicate glass fibers,” he said. “The result of this is potentially eliminating power consuming amplifiers and repeaters while significantly increasing bandwidth.

The glass has been made in several places, but no one has yet figured out how to form it into a fiber.

Dr. Castillo will first conduct research at QUT’s micro-gravity drop tower in an experiment that will see the glass undergo ~2.1 seconds of microgravity over a 21.3 meter drop inside a drag shield.

Dr Castillo, who has previously worked for space programs in the United States and Japan, will then board NASA’s parabolic flight plane, dubbed the ‘vomit comet’, before launching the project into space via a USAF suborbital satellite by mid next year.

“In order to stay at the leading edge of the synthesis of specialized glass, all traditional methods have to be abandoned,” Dr Castillo said.

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