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Tip Sheet

For immediate use 

July 29, 2005 -- No. 337

Samulski, DeSimone among UNC scientists 
working with NASA on spaceflight issues

As NASA officials continue to evaluate the loss of insulation foam from the space shuttle Discovery during the launch earlier this week, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scientists are performing research that may have future implications for issues concerning the spaceflight program.

Among them are Dr. Edward T. Samulski, Cary C. Boshamer professor of chemistry at UNC; and Dr. Joseph M. DeSimone, William R. Kenan Jr. distinguished professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at UNC and N.C. State University.

Samulski is principal investigator for UNC’s component of the Biologically Inspired Materials Institute (BIMat), established by NASA under the University Research, Engineering and Technology Institute (URETI) program.

Other universities in the institute are Princeton, Northwestern and the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). The researchers’ goal is to develop bio-nanotechnology materials and structures for aerospace vehicles.

UNC is dealing primarily with routes to new materials based on observations derived from biology, Samulski said. Researchers at UCSB have been researching the structure of bone and how it is held together – and the findings may enable researchers to see how to construct high-strength, lightweight materials that mimic bone.

Samulski has led a first-year seminar for students, titled "You Don’t Have to Be a Rocket Scientist," where he has brought to class tiles used to insulate the space shuttle from its high-temperature re-entry to the atmosphere. (The demo tiles are defective, therefore available from NASA as a teaching tool.)

There are 24,000 tiles on the space shuttle, and each one of them has its own shape and number, Samulski said.

"Until I held a tile in my hands, I could not believe that the underside of the shuttle was so fragile," Samulski said. "One need only pick one up to see. It’s extremely lightweight and fragile, and you can very easily carve your initials in it with your fingernail."

Samulski was one of five tenured professors nationwide recently chosen as a Jefferson Science Fellow and will offer science counsel to the U.S. Department of State in a yearlong appointment that begins Aug. 15. The program brings renowned science professors from American universities to the State Department for one-year assignments, followed by a five-year consultancy after they return to their academic careers.

More information on Samulski’s Jefferson Fellowship is at Contact Samulski at, (919) 962-1561 (work) or (919) 968-6648 (home).

NASA contacted DeSimone in May about how to address ice formation on the shuttle, specifically about the possibility of a coating on the large metal brackets connected to the fuel tank – where ice can form and then dislodge.

"They asked us if we had coating materials, and we said we did," DeSimone said. Researchers from DeSimone’s laboratory spoke with NASA engineers, then "quickly geared up" – applying liquid Teflon to prototypes of the brackets used on the shuttle. Then, DeSimone sent the findings to NASA for ice adhesion studies.

"They performed very well," DeSimone said, adding that NASA ultimately selected other materials. "They had looked at other materials, like oils that they could rub onto the bracket."

DeSimone directs the National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes and the Institute for Advanced Materials, Nanoscience and Technology at UNC. Earlier this year, DeSimone was elected into the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In June, the Journal of the American Chemical Society published findings on a study DeSimone led, where a team of UNC researchers figured out for the first time how to create organic nano-particles for carrying genetic material, pharmaceuticals and other compounds of unprecedented size and shape uniformity.

More information on DeSimone’s study on organic particles is at Contact DeSimone at (919) 962-2166 or 


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Photo note: To view Samulski with a tile of the type used on the space shuttle, click on

News Services contact: Deb Saine, (919) 962-8415 or