HomeScienceIoana Cozmuta, Ph.D.Microgravity Lead at the Science and Technology Corporation, Space Portal

Ioana Cozmuta, Ph.D.Microgravity Lead at the Science and Technology Corporation, Space Portal


There are many benefits of creating a synergy between Nanotechnology and Microgravity: Lack of gravity is expected to improve accuracy of controlled atom arrangement and manipulation at nanoscale. By performing the same experiments on ground and in space nanotechnologist scould unravel and explain gravity-related impediments and address existing limitations; operating in microgravity will create a wide spectrum for nanotechnology applications.

Dr. Ioana Cozmuta is the Microgravity Lead at the Space Portal, NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley providing fair broker technical, economic, market and business intelligence. She developed the innovative concept of “Verticals of Microgravity” to translate and infuse microgravity driven discoveries in various verticals of the private sector and introduced the measure of “Economic Readiness Level” as a selection criteria for maturing technologies based on their understanding of their economic potential.

Ioana is a featured TedEx “Future Spoiler” speaker and has given numerous (invited) talks in the US and abroad. She holds a PhD in Physics from University of Groningen, The Netherlands, a Computational Chemistry Research Associate degree from Caltech and a Biochemistry Research Associate degree from Stanford. Ioana joined the NASA Ames Research Center for Nanotechnology in 2003 to design a nano pore sensor for DNA sequencing. Thereafter she pioneered the use of molecular dynamics methods in the field of EDL engineering for the development of fundamental models for surface catalysis and gas-surface interactions. Through her expertise in reentry systems, Ioana provided support to the Stardust post-flight analysis team and acted in leadership roles for the Orion CEV Margins Management Team, and Material Response team for MSL/MEDLI. She initiated and chaired the first Gordon Research Conference on Atmospheric Reentry Physics, Fundamentals of Environment-Materials Interactions, Models and Design Approaches to Meet Emerging Space Needs.

She will be a speaker at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Oct, at the Space 2.0 and Space Technology and Investment Forum in the fall.

At the Space Technology and Investment Forum in San Francisco, successful space industry CEOs and founders of new space startups will share their experiences about how to secure funding, and identify creative financing solutions to launch new products and services. Select startups will also be asked to make presentations on how to facilitate new business ventures in space technology and bring big ideas to fruition.


I am impressed by Park’s AFM technology which is a great prototype for future space applications.

Why do you feel that Micro-Gravity and Space Resourcesare a leading factor in our future innovation?

How do nanoscale materials have the potential to create transformative technology?

There are three major reasons:

1. There is a shortage of resources on Earth

2. Current manufacturing processes are unsustainable, highly polluting and mostlyinefficient. When building a business the focus is on making things work and not necessarily on howto optimize them based on foreseeable long term consequences.

3. Key applications such as computers, telecommunications, energy devices, and automotive are nearing or have reached the performance limits of the underlying materials -metals, semiconductors, granular materials, biomaterials, glasses and ceramics, polymers and organics. Currently there is a struggle to create resource intensive operational parameters and conditions on Earth that are mostly consequences of physical phenomena masked by gravity.

Moving key manufacturing processes to space carries potentially huge benefits. In addition to long duration exposure to reduced (micro) gravity, the space environment inherently provides nearly infinite cold and limitless access to solar power.

What is the potential for Micro Gravity for understanding material and life science that can change our lives?

Research in the microgravity environment of space has already furthered our understanding of fundamental physical, chemical and biological processes and generated a wealth of results across multiple disciplines. The microgravity environment of space provides a unique opportunity to study materials phenomena involving the molten, fluidic and gaseous statesby reducing or eliminating buoyancy driven convection (purely diffusive driven transport) and sedimentation effects. Many materials in space can stably exist as a free suspension, in a perfect spherical shape. Four general categories of material science microgravity experiments arebeing explored:

1. Melt growth (i.e. processing multicomponent alloys from the liquid). These experiments frequently require high temperatures and closed containers to prevent elemental losses.

2. Aqueous or solution growth experiments (i.e. zeolites, triglycene sulfate; hydrothermal processing of inorganic compounds; sol-gel processing). These experiments require moderate to low temperatures.

3. Vapor or gaseous environments (i.e. growing mercury iodide or plasma processing; flame dynamics).

4. Containerless processing environments (i.e. formation of metallic and nonmetallic glasses during levitation melting and solidification; the float-zone growth of crystals measurement of thermophysical properties like diffusion coefficients and surface tension, etc) leading to the elimination of impurities and stresses introduced by contact with the container wall which, in turn, avoids nucleation.

As pointed out earlier, gravity is an important, yet often overlooked, variable of phase diagrams. Whether applied to crystallization or colloidal mixtures, in microgravity, the initial component distribution within the system is uniform and the progress through the phase diagrams usually occurs slower (diffusion driven). It is clear that lack of gravity impactsthe modality and length scale over which the physical and chemical interactions occur at atomic level leading, at macroscopic level, to a repositioning of the solubility and saturation curves and a resizing of the nucleation and precipitation zones. This usually leads to a more controlled nucleation process and either longer-range order (colloids) or higher resolution, larger crystals.

In a gravitational field, a binary mixture prepared with a composition between the binodal and the spinodal curvesspontaneously decomposes, quickly driving the composition to thecoexistence curve. Microgravity can ‘fixate’ unstable regions in the phase diagram and it is in this region where microgravity experiments can unravel and create new materials with exciting new properties.

Several hypothesesin multiple areas in fundamental physics are investigated in combined low-gravity ultra-cold temperature environment with the potential of unraveling gravitational-quantum effects. This could potentially solve existing limitations and challenges in the physics world of today and unravel new insights into understanding the Universe.
In terms of life science applications, contrary to earlier beliefs, microgravity induces changes in single cells or simple organisms as well as in large, complex organisms. The overall response to gravity (or lack thereof) is complex and can be captured in two categories:
Cells affected by gravity: The molecular mechanisms by which gravity affects biological systems are still largely unknown. A “gravity sensor” has not yet been identified.
Cells respond to gravity: Adaptation to force of Earth’s gravity (up-down asymmetry, structural strength, sensory systems) is encoded in genes. An organism expects to experience the physical effects of unit gravity: sedimentation, convection, transport processes, hydrostatic pressure, boundary conditions, and friction.

Atmospheric pressure directly influences cell structure, adhesion and signaling; stirring/thermal convection are responsible for slower heat and nutrient exchange important in tissue cultures; sedimentation and buoyancy are related to root growth and cell culture strategies; surface forces are important for the “chemical communication” aspects of a cell (i.e. development, disease, function). Similarly to the case of material science, exploration of crystallization phase diagrams for soft matter (proteins, polymers of biomolecules, etc) systems is of direct value to drug design efforts on ground.

What types of new materials are currently being developed in low orbit Micro Gravity that cannot be made here on Earth?

There are many, but I can quickly highlight two examples: Exotic Optical Fibers and Compound Semiconductor Wafers.

Currently, a vast spectrum of applications relies on Silica and its properties. This is because silica fibers are much less expensive to produce than exotic fibers and therefore sell for as low as $20/meter. In comparison, ZBLAN commercial prices are $150/meter to $300/meter, depending on quality and composition. Customization such as multimodal transmission or doping increases the prices even more, up to $3000/meter. Silica fibers are also stronger and more flexible than exotic ZBLAN, which is the most stable of the exotic fibers and an excellent host for doping. Multiple kilometer lengths of silica fiber can be manufactured in a single run while for ZBLAN the production is limited to 700-meter long fibers. There are however significant limitations to silica –transmission losses are very high and the operational bandwidth is very narrow, cutting off before right at the transition to the mid-IR region. The mid-IR region (where most molecular spectra lie) however is essential for applications relevant to laser oil drilling, medical, computers, telecommunications, high frequency market transactions, defense, sensors, etc. With the recent growth of the field of photonics, the demand and utilization of exotic fibers such as ZBLAN has increased exponentially. ZBLAN fibers have large reflectivity important in short distance transmission and broad optical transmission window extending into the IR with reduced loss. Making exotic fibers requires melting the various component elements together to create a preform glass Fibers are then produced by melting the preform and drawing the fibers on a take-up spool. The heavy elements entering the composition of ZBLAN have different densities and lead to different crystallization temperatures. In a gravitational field this leads to unwanted crystallization. It is further believed that gravity-induced sedimentation causes the separation of ZBLAN’s constituents by density a cause for internal inhomogeneity. Manufacturing exotic fibers in microgravity it is believed to be the only way that one could push the performance of these fibers close to the theoretical absolute predictions –100-1000 times better than current Si fibers over wavelengths ranging from 1-4.5 microns. Significant improvement is observed already by only reprocessing the preform in microgravity. Microgravity suppresses both nucleation and crystallization effects–directly underlying attenuation-broadband properties. There is theoretically no limit to the length of the fibers that can be produced in space using a relatively small-sized payload, another important manufacturing limitation on Earth. A rough estimate shows that 1lb of preform would produce 8 km of ZBLAN fiber with an approximate ROI of 90-300x.

The second example has to do with using microgravity as a means of “healing” low quality wafers manufactured by the semiconductor industry. For example, defects in Silicon Carbide wafers impact reliability of operation, limit high power performance and prevent the fabrication of large-scale devices. A2M, a company in Albuquerque, uses short term exposure to microgravity to correct electrically significant defects in existing SiC wafers, as measured by their electrical performance. Producers/wafer growers start with lower cost developmental wafers and let A2M turn them into “S-grade” for a flat fee per wafer.The exact mechanism of in-depth defect healing is currently being investigated by prof. Debbie Senesky and her group at the XtremeLab at Stanford University. Further improvement can be achieved fromreprocessing the wafers to their full manufacturing in long-term exposure to a microgravity environment.
Currently $1.5 billion is being invested into Nanotechnology research and investment in microgravity is minimal in comparison. How can joint research in Nanotechnology and micro gravity support rapid scientific advancement?

Indeed, nanotechnology and microgravity are synergistic in many aspects. Both are important to a wide variety of applications, not just a narrow segment, and have an in-depth transformative potential.

Gravity leads to alterations of the “perfect” order at nanoscale. Lack of gravity is expected to be able to reverse this effect and improve accuracy of controlled atom arrangement and manipulation at nanoscale. The approximate annual investment in Microgravity R&D in the US is about $250M/year –significantly smaller than the national Nanotechnology budget. By making Microgravity an available research tool for nanotechnologists and encouraging cross pollination between the fields, the benefits could be multiple: by performing the same experiments on ground and in space nanotechnologistscould unravel and explain gravity-related impediments and address existing limitations with which they currently struggle; generation of new ideas and technologies on both sides; operating in space requires miniaturization, which leads to serendipitous applications on Earth and thus create an even wider spectrum of applications. In this context, Microgravity research can be thought of as enabling entire branches of Nanotechnology that are simply not possible on the ground. Who knows what amazing advances may arise?

How could an Atomic Force Microscope help with the research done on Micro Gravity?

AFM is a technology that any respectable laboratory should have, yet I am unaware of the existence of an AFM on the ISS. For a spectrum of microgravity experiments, having “on-site” accurate atomic scale characterization technologies would align the capabilities on ISS with those of laboratories on the ground. Moreover by comparing AFM analysis of samples on ground vs AFM analysis of counterparts in space this is important in terms of establishing direct evidence comparative evidence of the consequences of reduced gravity and increase credibility.
Due to the large costs associated with reaching Low Earth Orbit, most technologies used in space need to be miniaturized, something that may not have happened otherwise on Earth. This is beneficial on both ends.

Can you explain orbital gravity, gravitational waves and ranges of g’s as it is currently understood and how this helps us define our place in the universe?

Putting my physicist hat on, I would look at gravity as another physical parameter that, together with pressure and temperature, defines the phase diagram and states of a given system. Humanity has acquired an impressive collection of information so far in terms of existence, stability and behavior of inert and living systems. However this database corresponds almost entirely to one single value on the gravity axis, that of 1g. We have barely scratched the surface in terms of creating a similar database in Low Earth Orbit. But there are so many more values to explore- the surface of every planet is in fact an open laboratory corresponding to that gravity value. The truly valuable information is carried in the long-term exposure to that environment and has to be studied in-situ, not through simulated gravity experiments on Earth. (That does not mean that experiments in simulated gravity don’t have their place and value).
The moment one startswondering about gravity, the awareness on how much our thinking and intuition is calibrated and attuned to the 1g field in which we live is also highlighted. There are questions I carry with me throughout the day and ponder upon– how would we, products of the 1g-Earth environment, act or think if living and working in a stable habitat on Mars or the Moon or another remote planet at the other end of the Universe? Or have that experience and then come back and live back here? I believe that would be a humbling experience. I would hope that we would be more grateful for the amazingly hospitable conditions we have on Earth. We would hopefully be more respectful to this planet. More considerate of resources, more moderate and sustainable in terms of how we live. Society structures would be different too. This Earth-centric, ego-centric view would definitely be broken. Each one of us is an infinitesimal fraction of a pixel on the canvas of the Universe. Or to make a “nanotechnology” comparison – and use the standard model in physics- a vibration of a string, possibly creating a particle, somewhere in the depths of a material.

Harvesting fundamentally new information, such as the study of a system in a changed gravitational environment, is a powerful source for creativity. Historically major breakthroughs and innovations were achieved by studying systems under extreme conditions, i.e. at low temperatures or high energies. To unravel a new system variable, its precise way of modifying the phase diagram of inert and live systems, to translate that information to applied value and infuse it into what should matter to us as a species (sustainable living, public benefit, economic growth etc) requires a thorough, well validated, solid, stable, long- term plan to setup this huge machinery. Will humanity be able to align interests and work in harmony and agreement towards its own benefit and survival?

As a species, we are in the midst of emerging out of a fear-based consciousness into an era of empowerment that treats all sentient life with kindness and respect. I personally do not think that creating and maintaining senseless wars helps humanity to thrive. Our most important issue is now before us- we must choose how we will live beyond our planet of origin as we emerge into a space faring race! Sending into space our most open-minded, peaceful explorers to uncover the unlimited potential to improve our lives is my personal wish – not only for our generation but for all those to come.

Why is it important to our future as a species to thrive beyond our planet of origin and importantly to do so in a kind way?

The new frontier in long-term innovation belongs to those who will have the vision and the determination to learn how to make smart, good use in their business (and why not their daily lives) of space resources. We all need to undergo a paradigm shift in the philosophy around doing business and the way we treat each other, the environment, the future of humanity. This requires individuals to act and think maturely and responsibly for themselves and for humanity. Big corporations could set the stage in terms of redefining the notion of return on investment to encompass sustainability and increased efficiency in addition to revenue making. Some forward thinking CEO’s have already done just that. Wealth generation is not anymore thought of in terms of individual or local scale revenue but rather the ability to generate it globally and for the long term; for generations to come.

What are the current economic challenges and limitations on advancing Micro Gravity research and commercialization and how critical is recognizing the intangible value of such research?

The list of economic challenges and limitations is fairly long, unfortunately. First and foremost, one needs to set in place a self-sustainable machinery for microgravity commercialization. How business can make money in LEO should be easily understood and transparent. How microgravity can help to unravel cutting edge, fundamental science or serve, as a unique tool for new IP should be presented in a more compelling manner.

It is still on the government’s shoulders to prime the pumpand incentivize the establishment of a flourishing LEO economy. This will not happen overnight. It relies upon creating a long term, stable program, dedicated and focused on the outcome. In a way, I think people look up at NASA as being the steward of our future as species. A job at NASA is not just a job- it is serious responsibility and should be treated as such.

In terms of policies, one way to do this is by remembering the situation in the 1860’swhere a need to promote the construction of a “transcontinental railroad” was established. The “Pacific Railroad Acts” authorized the issuance of government bonds and the grants of land to railroad companies. Since it is not possible to give free land in LEO, the translation to microgravity would be to allow companies to Incorporate in LEO and offer them a tax break.Since a LEO economy does not yet exist, a ten-year tax holiday revenue from the sales of microgravity productswould be a $-neutral cost. Another incentivewould be to allow companies to take back to the US tax free one dollar from the money parked overseas for every dollar spent commercializing space. For companies, this would be an immediate way to make money in the US.

From a technical perspective, the value of research in microgravityis generally well understood and accepted once familiar with the details. That does not mean that some experiments still don’t have enough data collected to be conclusive or that all the potential that microgravity offers has been harvested. Here is where scientific, fundamental, thorough research is critical. For companies in the private sector to be more engaged in the process of using space as a source of IP or revenue the following should be considered:(1) existence of a public, commercial microgravity database to provide relevant technical and economic context (2) ability to identify, understand and promptly address the dependencies and risks of operating in space so that they do not become hampering factors in developing the space aspects of their business (3) access to affordable, off the shelf hardware.

History and Value of Micro Gravity Research

The understanding and utilization of processing material in a microgravity environment has in fact been used on Earth since 1753 when William Watts of Bristol, England built a 168 foot drop-tower in Chester, England to process molten lead into uniformly spherical shot for firearms. Similarly, the tallest tower in the US is the 234’ Phoenix Shot Tower in Baltimore, MD, built in 1828. Long duration exposure to microgravity however is required for creating high-performance materials. This condition is accessible in Low Earth Orbit and beyond. In the Space Shuttle Era, a Wake Shield Facility was deployed and operated. The ultra high vacuum created in the wake enabled “clean room” conditions for film epitaxial growth of semiconductor crystals.

There are four major categories in which the value of long-term exposure to the microgravity environment:

1.  New insights into systems behavior and response to variations in their environment and identifying new final states of systems. This knowledge is captured in LEO through a series of targeted experiments. A technology is then developed on ground that is able to mimic the newly observed state of the system. This technology is then commercialized.

2.  Processing/reprocessing in space of products manufactured on Earth. This approach seeks improvements in the ultimate properties and performance of the product by having it undergo a (re)processing cycle in space.

3. Manufacturing and Assembly in space. This is the process in which a product is built in the reduced gravity environment, usually from its compound elements.

4. Technology Demonstrations and miniaturization. In this instance a technology is developed for some specific purpose in space that turns out to be of serendipitous value on Earth. Due to severe mass limitations technologies are miniaturized for use in space which in turns increases their utilization and application on Earth.

Current Opportunities for Funding for micro gravity technology research

Microgravity R&D and most flight opportunities are primarily funded and supported by the government.

On the NASA side, the existing solicitations are listed on NSPIRES:( Another option is through the ISS National Laboratory managed by the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, CASIS (, either responding toone of theirRFP’s or by submitting an unsolicited proposal. There are also several commercial space companies like NanoRacks that have the ability to enable access to space and the ISS and execution of microgravity experiments.

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