Mines News

Release Date Tuesday, September 28, 2021

South Dakota Mines Researchers Aid NASA in Combing Space Station Research Data

Joshua Adeniran, a Ph.D. student in chemical and biological engineering at Mines, at work in the lab on an experiment using magnetic fields to control particles inside a liquid.

South Dakota Mines student and faculty researchers have received $300,000 in grants from NASA to help model microgravity in a rotating wall vessel and to comb the massive dataset gathered during a wide range of experiments on the space station and the space shuttle.

“We take the old data that was gathered from experiments in space, and we do new work on it,” says Travis Walker, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at South Dakota Mines. Members of the Walker Research Group are pouring over these older data sets with new tools to provide novel insights that may benefit future space exploration and/or scientific challenges on Earth. “What NASA really wants us to do is to turn around and suggest the next generation of experiments on the space station,” says Walker.

Walker and his research team study fundamental physics of particles at very small scales. In 2017, he won a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation on new ways to manipulate the particle-laden fluids inside 3D printing processes. This work led to the creation of several different research projects. “Because we study fundamental physics, solving previous problems has led us to all sorts of new applications,” says Walker. These applications include everything from possible new delivery of cancer drugs and better braking systems for automobiles to new ways to grow the beneficial microbes that are needed for cutting edge biotechnology applications and much more. 

The latest NASA funded research includes work with Mingyang Tan, Ph.D., formerly a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at Mines who is now at the University of Connecticut. Tan is examining data from a series of experiments done in the space station in the 1990’s on particles that are suspended in fluids. “It’s called suspension mechanics, and it’s in almost everything we do in life. All the materials that you buy have particles in them, and those particles change the properties of the fluid that suspend them,” says Walker.

In previous work Tan suspended magnetically responsive particles in a fluid and found magnetic fields can be used to control the particles and change the properties of the liquid itself. “The problem is that doing really precise experiments on how particles are suspended in liquid on Earth is really hard, so some of the premiere experiments were done on the space station,” says Walker. Joshua Adeniran, a Ph.D. student in chemical and biological engineering, is continuing this work today as a member of the Walker Research Group.

The tools that Walker and Tan are using to examine the NASA suspension mechanics data are based on computer code that Tan wrote as part of previous research on Walker’s NSF CAREER Award. “My work aims to add to fundamental understanding of materials at different scales,” says Tan. Tan has built his own computer models that can accurately mimic conditions in space and provide insight to new potential experiments – the NASA data will help refine these models. “We hope to be able to propose more particle shapes and more magnetic properties for future experiments in space,” says Tan.

“Dr. Tan deserves all of the credit on this work,” says Walker. “It’s all based on efforts dating back to his initial Ph.D. work that led to my CAREER award,” says Walker. “Dr. Tan wrote this code, and although big groups at major universities are utilizing similar codes, he created a unique program that is now starting to bear fruit.”

Mines is one of many universities across the country competing for NASA funded research projects like this. Walker gives credit of this success to his team. “Caltech, MIT, Stanford and other major universities have this level of computer coding and research,” says Walker. “I’m lucky to have a large group of students and researchers who could be successful at any major university in the country,” he adds. “My success has been highly dependent on other researchers and students like Dr. Tan.” 

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About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,418 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 97 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $66,150. For these reasons College Factual ranks South Dakota Mines, the #1 Engineering School for Return on Investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-721-7865, Mike.Ray@sdsmt.edu