New anti-dust tech could solve lunar dust problem in spacecraft

A team modified the geometry of flat surfaces to produce a densely packed nanoscale network of pyramidal structures.
Sade Agard
A new method prevents dust from sticking to surfaces
A new method prevents dust from sticking to surfaces

The University of Texas at Austin/Smart Material Solutions 

Novel engineered surfaces have been created that make many different types of materials resistant to dust, according to a new study published on February 22 in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

The structures require no extra energy or resources to prevent dust particles from adhering to surfaces on Earth and in space. Compare that to more active solutions, like antistatic spray or a vacuum that needs fluid or electricity respectively.

What is anti-dust technology?

"What we've demonstrated here is a surface that can clean itself," said Chih-Hao Chang in a press release, an associate professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering's Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and a lead author of the study. 

"Particulates aren't able to stick to the surface, so they come off using just the force of gravity," he added.

While anti-dust technology has been around for a while, it hasn't really taken off outside of the lab due to scale issues. The fabrication techniques utilized in this latest study, known as nanocoining and nanoimprinting, print patterns on items more modernly than how mass-produced newspapers and images were made in the 1800s.

According to the researchers, the discovery essentially involves things the human eye cannot see. In a partnership with North Carolina-based company Smart Material Solutions Inc., the team modified the geometry of flat surfaces to produce a densely packed nanoscale network of pyramidal structures. 

New anti-dust tech could solve lunar dust problem in spacecraft
A nanoscale look at how dust aggregates on this spiky surface.

Dust particles find it challenging to adhere to the material due to its sharp, angular structures. Instead, they attach to one another and roll off the surface due to gravity.

In tests, the scientists covered their engineered surfaces in lunar dust and then turned each surface on its side. Only 2 percent of the surface remained dusty, as opposed to 35 percent of a similarly smooth surface.

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What is the lunar dust problem?

Space dust is particularly unpleasant because of how dangerous everything is in that environment. Moreover, the conditions make dust removal difficult. Both the Apollo missions and the Mars rovers have failed due to dust. 

Since the research was made possible by funding from NASA's Small Business Innovation Research program, initial applications of the tech will concentrate on space technology.

"There's not much you can do about lunar dust in space – it sticks to everything, and there's no real way to wipe it off or spray it off," stated Samuel Lee, a lead author who was an undergraduate researcher in Chang's group. "Dust on solar panels of Mars rovers can cause them to fail."

That said, the novel surfaces also have the potential to have a significant influence on Earth. It might save solar panels from accumulating dust and deteriorating over time. Glass windows and perhaps even digital screens on phones and TVs in the future could be protected by it.

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