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Making rocket parts in a giant microwave

BY Rebecca Jacobson  May 9, 2014 at 6:27 PM EST

When NASA blasts rockets into space, the engines kick out an inferno that would melt most metals. How do you make a material that withstands temperatures over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit?

The answer may be in microwaves, says material scientist Holly Shulman. She and her colleagues at Ceralink are working on ultra high temperature ceramics, which can be used as nozzles on rockets and space shuttles. Normally, making materials like this requires high pressure and extremely high temperatures, both of which are expensive to generate. But using a microwave furnace, these durable materials may become cheaper and faster to make in a process called enhanced diffusion, Shulman said.

“Instead of the way food heats, which is based on the water heating within the food, we can actually make that work in ceramic materials to heat them internally and cause them to densify very quickly and with huge energy savings,” she said.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has more on this story for the National Science Foundation’s series “Science Nation.”*

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.