Common household liquid, gel and cream consistency consumer products like laundry detergent, paints and coatings, ketchup or salad dressing, cleaners and medicines, all begin to deteriorate in quality and properties even before they leaves the production line. Gravity tugs at molecules of the products’ constituents, causing gradual separation of mixture composites into different parts. As the components separate, they can become watery or gooey, so in order to combat and slow this product deterioration and increase shelf life, manufactures use stabilizers. However eventually, particles still clump together and sink to the bottom in a process known as coarsening which can spoil a product. Consequently, techniques for extending shelf life of everyday items can benefit not only manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of these products, but also positively impact the family pocketbook.
The NASA Advanced Colloids Experiment (ACE-M-1), a product of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, is designed to help researchers understand how to better optimize stabilizers for extending product shelf life, while also cutting development, production and transportation costs. Better stabilizers result in better quality, reduced costs and greener, more concentrated products that use less plastic in their packaging, resist collapse, and remain consistent throughout their life, with the first ounce coming out of the bottle the same as the last. ACE-M-1 launched to the International Space Station on the second commercial resupply flight of the SpaceX Dragon on March 1.
Gaining a better understanding of the physical processes of particles obtained through ACE-M-1 samples may greatly impact the quality, production and longevity of commercial products. Buying a product that lasts longer and is of higher quality will provide more bang for the buck, which makes for a satisfied consumer.
Using microgravity to study the exceptionally small particles, known as colloids, that make up these types of liquid products, researchers can gain more insight into their characteristics. This may ultimately aid research efforts in improving health, beauty and household care products we use every day. The Advanced Colloids Experiment-M-1 (ACE-M-1) project is the first set of tests in a series of microscopic imaging investigations of materials which contain small colloidal particles.
ACE-M-1 studies behavior of microscopic particles in liquids, gels and creams. The International Space Station (ISS) is an ideal location to study the physics of coarsening which could lead to manufacturing longer lasting products.
These particles have the specific characteristic of remaining evenly dispersed and distributed within the material. The ACE-M-1 investigation uses the microgravity environment on the ISS to minimize the process of sedimentation in materials containing pinhead, or smaller-sized, colloidal particles. This keeps the particles evenly dispersed within the materials for longer periods of time.
“Really, what were hoping to learn is basically the fundamental roles that govern the formation of these structures, how those structures change over time, and by doing so, we can make a much better directed experiment and more rational design of our products,” says Matthew Lynch, Ph.D. , in a NASA release. Dr. Lynch is an earth-based principal investigator of ACE-M-1 who is also a principal scientist at the Procter and Gamble Company in Cincinnati (P&G). In this video, Public Affairs Officer Kelly Humphries interviews Dr. Lynch, about ACE-M-1.
As a result of this research, Dr. Lynch was a recipient of one of the “Most Compelling Results from the International Space Station in 2013” awards, presented at the third annual ISS Research and Development conference on June 17, 2014, “in recognition of taking consumer product design to entirely new heights.”
The ACE-M-1, the first in a series of such investigations aboard the space station, was conducted on the space station from October 2013 to March 2014. The collaborative effort involved P&G, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).
“When these products sit on a shelf for a significant length of time, they start coarsening and separating,” says Bill Meyer, Ph.D., ACE-M-1 project scientist at Glenn. Coarsening occurs when smaller particles suspended in a liquid join to become larger particles, thereby altering its texture.”You see a top half and a bottom half that are different. Stabilizers keep the product doing what you want it to do. While we have a general understanding about what is happening at the particle level with these stabilizers, there’s a lot more that we need to know,” Dr. Meyer says.
“I would say that the products that we’re thinking about applying the science to, they are used daily by 4.8 billion people throughout the world,” says P&G’s Dr. Lynch. “That’s a significant number of people whose lives can be improved through innovations like this.”
According to Ron Sicker, ACE-M-1 Project Manager at NASA Glenn Research Center Avon Lake, Ohio (Cleveland/Akron, Ohio Area), NASA and industry often have similar goals. “For me as a NASA project manager, ACE-M-1 made me realize that many ground-based industries are in the same business as NASA, namely overcoming gravity,” Mr. Sicker comments in the release. “We do this to enable space travel and exploration. Ground-based industries have to overcome gravity to produce better products.”
The NASA Space Life and Physical Sciences (SLPS) program developed the Light Microscopy Module (LMM) that has been operating on the space station since 2009, and has supported projects in gravity-dependent colloidal system physics since the mid-1990s. The LMM is a remotely controllable, automated microscope that gives scientists the ability to study specimens in microgravity in real time while the interesting science is happening. The LMM, which operates in the Fluids & Combustion Facility (FCF), resides in the space station’s Destiny Laboratory and is managed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
NASA collaboration in colloids research with scientists at P&G began in 2009 in response to the Microgravity Research Competition sponsored by the Heinlein Prize Trust. This collaboration led to the BCAT and ACE investigations supported by the Space Life and Physical Sciences program and later transferred to CASIS for the ACE-M-1 implementation.
The same technologies that help NASA pursue its goals of exploring our universe are helping improve our lives here on Earth. Space-based research can lead to better quality, reduced costs and greener, more concentrated products that use less plastic in their packaging. It could result in formulas that resist collapse to remain consistent and useful throughout their lifetimes.
“The ACE project is a multi-year, multi-experiment effort through at least 2020 on the space station, with approximately 15 experiments,” says NASA’s Sicker. “ACE-M-1 is the first. ACE-M-2 is currently being operated on the space station and continues work in phase separation and how to influence phase separation.
Advanced Colloids Experiment-Microscopy-2 (ACE-M-2) observes the microscopic behavior of liquids and gases separating from each other. The investigation examines the behavior of model (colloid rich) liquids and model (colloid poor) gases near the critical point, or the point at which there is no distinct boundary between the two phases. ACE-M-2 uses the LMM to record micro-scale events on short time scales, while previous experiments observed large-scale behavior over many weeks. Liquids and gases of the same material usually have different densities, so they would behave differently under the influence of gravity, making the microgravity environment of the International Space Station ideal for these experiments.
ACE-M-3 with New York University is the next planned investigation. It will study colloidal self-assembly. As the ACE experiments progress they will expand from applied research to more theoretically based research and add features to control and influence samples with temperature and electric fields.
The ACE-M-3 experiment involves the design and assembly of complex three-dimensional structures from small particles suspended within a fluid medium. These so-called self-assembled colloidal structures, are vital to the design of advanced optical materials. In the microgravity environment, insight will be provided into the relation between particle shape, crystal symmetry, and structure: a fundamental issue in condensed matter science.
“In the end, all the work links together with modeling and theoretical analysis,” says Mr. Sicker. “The space station provides the platform to observe these very complex processes on a timescale that is thousands of times longer than on Earth. Colloids, including chemical products derived from petroleum, account for approximately 30 percent of the manufacturing and industrial Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. So the work is very important to the U.S. economy.”
ISS Research and Development Conference 2014