UH Moment

UH Moment: ‘Mechanical Engineering’

Researchers at the UH Cullen College of Engineering are building the materials for a stronger space vehicle. Learn more in this UH Moment.


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Mechanical Engineering Professor Ken White

“The Air Force and NASA had an interest in more maneuverable reentry vehicles, and always had a need for something that could handle the high temperatures,” said University of Houston Mechanical Engineering professor Ken White. He and his research team developed a material for improved maneuverability in air and space vehicles. It was part of a multi-institution project funded by a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Air Force.  

“We’re talking about the space shuttle, which has a rounded leading edge and it does not have the maneuverability they were looking for,” he said. “The temperatures on reentry can be very high, so the issues almost always come down a quantity called ‘creep.’”

“Creep” describes the characteristic of a material as it slowly, over time, gives way to stress at high temperatures. Understanding creep was the critical part of their work, but to get there they had to invent the tools to study it.

“We had to develop tools—the furnace and the parts of the furnace that protected the specimen from the environment—so we could make these measurements. These didn’t exist at the time,” White said. “The data that was available was only available up to 1,400 degrees centigrade and we had to make our measurements at 1,800 degrees centigrade.”

White and his team found that when they replaced part of the material’s recipe with the element tungsten the resulting material was stronger. Continued study will provide engineers with material to create the next generation of air and space craft.

“It’s a little bit of a radical departure from the existing designs, so it is very rewarding,” he said. 

Mechanical Engineering research is part of what’s happening at the University of Houston. I’m Marisa Ramirez.