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Weaving a Future of Revolutionary Materials
To turn a Madonna song on its head: Charlie Harris is living in a material world, but he is not a material ... man.

Yes, Harris, the director of the Research and Technology Directorate at NASA's Langley Research Center, has spent a lot of his time at NASA working with materials and their applications. But that's not where his background lies.

Charlie Harris

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Charlie Harris, the director of the Research and Technology Directorate at NASA's Langley Research Center, spoke Dec. 6 as part of the National Institute of Aerospace's 10th anniversary lecture series. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

"I am not a material scientist," he said Dec. 6 during a talk he gave as part of the National Institute of Aerospace's 10th anniversary lecture series. "I'm actually a structures guy."

That changed in 1987 when NASA plucked up Harris from a teaching gig at Texas A&M University to head up its Mechanics of Materials Branch.

Today, Harris, though still a structures guy at heart, is a major proponent of NASA moving forward in the field of advanced materials, which he believes will play a key role in the development of the next generation of aircraft.

"The future is very bright for everybody attempting to develop advanced materials," he said.

The future didn't always look so sunny, though.

One of the early challenges in the development of advanced materials was getting the airline industry and airline operators comfortable with the idea of using them. The only way to do that was to pay the airlines to put these materials on their planes and fly them.

Cost was a concern, too, so one of the things NASA had to do was figure out a way to make composites cheaper.

They did, and by 1993, Harris says, there were about 350 composite components in service, and those components had accumulated over 3.5 million flight hours.

Composites were also used on the space shuttle and in the primary structure of the B2, which is comprised of almost all composites. However, the materials being used on the B2, which first flew in 1989, had been developed in the '70s and early '80s. That's a considerable lag time, and it's something that plagues the industry in general.

"The technology that's actually fielded on a new airframe is a generation behind what we're doing at the research labs," Harris said.

Harris also illustrated that point by talking about Boeing's 787, almost half of which is constructed of composite materials.

"It's about as much composites as you're ever going to get on an aircraft," he said.

Because of that, the 787 is approximately 40,000 pounds lighter than airplanes of similar size constructed of conventional materials, allowing it to burn 29 percent less fuel and produces 20 percent fewer emissions.

Those numbers have revolutionized the marketplace and Boeing has sold about as many 787s as it can produce from now to 2025.

This, Harris says, goes to show how NASA's programs in advanced materials can be successful.

But even though the 787 is a success story, it's also a perfect example of how long it can take for materials to make it to the commercial sector.

"If you look at the timeline here," Harris said, "that's about 40 years of effort from the time we began to talk seriously about these materials until we saw the kind of application that we fantasized about in the '70s. That's an awful long time for new product innovation."

Things have got to change, he says.

And in a dramatic fashion.

According to Harris, Boeing has realized that new technologies need to be introduced every three to five years.

That's a tall order. But, Harris says, NASA is talking to Boeing to figure out a way forward.

"We think the key to accelerating the process is to take our current approach, which is sequential and empirical and slow and expensive, and replace it with a more integrated, seamless environment in which we can do computational design very effectively," he said.

The ultimate goal for NASA, according to Harris, is not only to do design by analysis, but also certification by analysis — and with materials like carbon nanotubes and boron nitride nanotubes.

NASA won't be able to achieve any of these goals without a focused activity, though. "And the focused activity has got to have critical mass and it's got to have the level of investment so that we can push the technology up the maturation curve," he said.

It also has to meet the needs of the airline industry, which means it has to help make airplanes that are lighter, safer, quieter, more fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly.

Ultimately, if NASA is successful moving forward, Harris thinks the end result will be new classes of materials that are superior to conventional engineered materials in use today — and dramatic reductions in the amount of time it takes to get those materials from development to commercial usage.

Harris is optimistic that NASA can be successful, because, as the self-professed "structures guy" reminded everyone on the last slide of his lecture, "we do live in a material world."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman