“Working on ESA’s electromagnetic furnace in Columbus while wearing Skinsuit. I wrote about Skinsuit before – it is a suit that compresses our spine together to recreate the effects of gravity – but the electromagnetic levitator deserves more explanation. It is, simply put, an automated furnace that melts and cools metal alloys as they float weightless. On Earth when metals melt they are always in contact with a container, and the container will influence the heating process and interact with the sample, not to mention gravity pulling on the metal ions. The levitator here on the International Space Station allows researchers to analyse the metals without gravity or the containers influencing results: it helps them create better materials on Earth for transport, industry, electronics etc. It is similar to the Japanese Electrostatic Furnace that I have mentioned before, but the European version uses magnets instead of static forces.”
Thomas Pesquet – February 17th, 2017
Thomas will use the Electromagnetic Levitator in ESA’s Columbus laboratory. This furnace can heat metals to 2000°C without contact and then let them cool rapidly. Blacksmiths have been using this technique for centuries to create steel tools and weapons by heating, hammering and quenching in water. This process freezes the steel’s structure and causes it to harden and stay sharp. Understanding the underlying physics is complicated and factors such as gravity and the mould used to hold the metal in place influence the process, making it difficult to get to the fundamentals. Observing liquid metals cooling in weightlessness removes the complexity to reveal the core process of physics. The Electromagnetic Levitator takes it a step further and suspends the metals in mid-air as they melt and solidify. The metals can be heated in a vacuum or in a gas. A high-speed camera records the rapid process of solidification and sensors record the temperature and other variables. The metals formed are retrieved and returned to Earth for analysis.