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For release: 05/11/04
Release #: 04-137  

NASA partnership produces technology breakthrough that allows on-the-spot chemical analysis

Photo description: The Vacuum Enhanced X-ray Fluorescent Scanner, developed by Marshall engineers and KeyMaster Technologies, Kennewick, Wash., is portable, weighs about 4 pounds, and is capable of detailed chemical analysis, even under field conditions.

Marshall Center engineers have teamed with KeyMaster Technologies, Kennewick, Wash., to develop a portable vacuum analyzer that weighs just 4 pounds and performs on-the-spot chemical analyses under field conditions. The new capability is important not only to the aerospace industry, but holds potential for broad applications in any industry that depends on materials analysis.

Photo: The Vacuum Enhanced X-ray Fluorescence Scanner, developed by Marshall engineers and KeyMaster Technologies, Kennewick, Wash. (Keymaster)


Collaboration between NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and an industry partner has resulted in development of a portable vacuum X-ray fluorescent analyzer that performs on-the-spot chemical analyses — a task previously only possible in a chemical laboratory.

Marshall engineers in Huntsville, Ala., teamed with KeyMaster Technologies of Kennewick, Wash., to develop a "chemistry lab in your hand" that weighs about 4 pounds and is capable of detailed material analysis, even under field conditions. This capability promises to be a boon to the aerospace community because of unique requirements — for instance, the need to analyze Space Shuttle propulsion systems on the launch pad. Those systems provide the awe-inspiring rocket power that propels the Space Shuttle from Earth into orbit in mere minutes.

The newly developed vacuum X-ray fluorescent analyzer can identify and characterize a wide range of elements, and is capable of detecting chemical elements with low atomic numbers — such as sodium, aluminum and silicon. It is the only hand-held product on the market with that capability. Aluminum alloy verification is of particular interest to NASA because vast amounts of high-strength aluminum alloys are used in the Space Shuttle propulsion system — the External Tank, Main Engine and Solid Rocket Boosters.

"Being able to bring a full analytical chemical laboratory to something as large as a Solid Rocket Booster and determine alloy constituents to an accuracy of four decimal places is a major breakthrough," said Fred Schramm, technology utilization manager in Marshall 's Technology Transfer Department. Schramm worked closely with Keymaster to develop the hand-held scanner.

The scanner also detects difficult-to-identify contaminants such as silicon, which can be detrimental to welding operations, but which now can be identified and removed before the welding process begins. Also, paint and other coatings won't adhere to surfaces if silicon is

present. The scanner will provide on-the-spot identification to allow silicon removal before applying primer coating to hardware such as the Shuttle's Solid Rocket Boosters.

The scanner development also marks a major improvement in the quality assurance field, because screws, nuts, bolts, fasteners and other items can now be evaluated upon receipt and rejected if found to be substandard. The same holds true for aluminum weld rods.

"On-the-spot analysis to identify possible counterfeiting or otherwise unacceptable parts at the distributor or process entry level will revolutionize the capability of NASA quality assurance and production operations to detect material problems at receiving inspection points, on the shop floor and in the field," said Schramm.

Three vacuum X-ray fluorescent hand-held scanners are already being used in the Space Shuttle Program. The External Tank Project Office is using one for aluminum alloy analysis, while a Marshall contractor is evaluating alloys with another unit purchased for the Space Shuttle Main Engine Office. The Reusable Solid Rocket Motor Project Office has obtained a scanner that is being used to test hardware and analyze materials.

The product has potential for a broad application in other industries, especially those that depend heavily on materials analysis — such as the automotive and pharmaceutical industries. Materials can be scanned as they come in the door and faulty products rejected. Corrosion can even be detected through paint. And with the extended detection range of the scanner, many chemical blending processes can be evaluated real time with high accuracy.

"The ability to validate the integrity of raw materials and partially finished products before adding value to them in the manufacturing process will be of benefit not only to businesses, but also to the consumer, who will have access to a higher value product at a cheaper price," Schramm said.

KeyMaster's work in developing the scanner technology with NASA was enabled by the agency's Technology Transfer Program resulting in an exclusive license. For more information about the X-ray fluorescent analyzer, contact Keymaster's John Landefeld, 509-783-9850. For more information about licensing agreements with NASA, contact Sammy Nabors, 256-544-5226.


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