Durable, ultra-thin, lightweight, and heat and radiation resistant, polyimides are ideal for space applications. At the NASA Langley Research Center where Anne St. Clair and her team were working with different polyimides to find one better suited to protecting spacecraft from overheating, they developed colorless film chemistries. Because they absorb less heat, these colorless polyimides were more valuable to NASA than conventional yellow polyimides such as Kapton®. NASA and other groups that were producing hardware for space recognized their potential as reflectors and concentrators for large space-based antennas, as they are easily folded for transportation and deployed to full size in low-earth orbit.
Value in space and on earth
NASA Langley approached RTI Innovation Advisors to consider applications, identify companies that would be interested in the colorless polyimides for space and other uses, and find a licensee for them. Our team considered potential uses for the materials in the commercial sector. These included the coating of bronze statues and delicate stained-glass to prevent aging due to ultraviolet radiation, the coating of cars to protect against sun damage, protection for skin when used in facial cream, tougher nail polish when used as an additive and more.
From spacecraft to displays and beyond
We worked with NASA to bring the colorless polyimides to the commercial market and helped extend applications for these versatile materials, including flat panel displays, microelectronics, coatings, solar arrays, and thermal control materials. We helped execute agreements between NASA and SRS Technologies, a private company which licensed the technology and manufactured the polyimides as powder, resin and rolled film (SRS Technologies was later spun off as NeXolve). The NASA license enabled solar thermal applications to withstand the extreme conditions of space. SRS supplied the materials to Hughes for a series of communications satellites that are still in orbit today.
NeXolve continues to develop the materials and used NASA-derived colorless polyimides in the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield, which is the size of a tennis court. The company also supplies related materials to commercial clients that include Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. Today, the colorless polyimide is used in display applications, space structures, thermal insulation, electrical insulators, industrial tapes, and advanced composites.
Growing out of our work with NASA, colorless polyimides may soon become a game-changing feature for millions of smartphone, tablet and wearable owners. More than one display manufacturer is testing a “descendant” of the original NASA materials in what may be the next generation of consumer devices: foldables. The flexible film can replace display’s rigid glass sheets, making the colorless polyimide a key technology.