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Space crew grows crystals, could be real gas

Peggy Whitson checks Zeolite experiment on the international space station.
Peggy Whitson checks Zeolite experiment on the international space station.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- What are zeolite crystals and why are space station residents growing them in orbit? The answer could revolutionize life back on our planet.

Zeolites, which have a rigid structure with interlocked tunnels and cells like a honeycomb, are crucial components in many industrial processes, including the production of most of the gasoline in the world.

After arriving in June, the current space station crew is cooking up a new batch of the super-crystals, and the initial results look promising.

On Earth, zeolite crystals are rather small, roughly the size of bacteria, between 2 and 8 microns. In the weightlessness of space, baked in special ovens, the crystal structures can grow much larger, offering scientists a better opportunity to unlock the secrets of their complex properties.

Zeolites remain hard as a rock while soaking up liquids and gases like petroleum and hydrogen, and will release the material only when heated or placed under reduced pressure.

With this particular batch of the versatile crystals, NASA scientists hope to find ways to improve the printing and electronics industries.

"One of them [the experiments] is looking at a way to trap dyes for carbonless paper, fixing the dyes so the print doesn't fade," said Al Sacco, a Northeastern University researcher participating in the NASA project.

"The other one is looking at the process for growing the first continuous quantum wires in orbit for the next generation of electronics. Instead of electricity, these wires would transmit light."

NASA has other space experiments in progress involving Zeolite, which could eventually be used to store cheaper and cleaner fuels. Pollution-free hydrogen, for example, might be stored and transported efficiently in the material, according to the space agency.

The space station crew, American Peggy Whitson and Russians Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev, are taking part in dozens of other science projects during their stay aboard the station, scheduled to last until mid-October.


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