Engineering team develops polymer composites to insulate deep space capsules

Rapid City, South Dakota - Ten teams from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology are currently participating in a business accelerator program created by the Enterprise Institute and funded by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. The teams are comprised of mix of students, faculty, and entrepreneurs-in-residence. The South Dakota Engineering Accelerator is focused on high-growth business creation and the commercialization of engineering-focused projects from the university system and the general public.

Eric Schmid (left) and Dr. David Salem (right) stand in their lab space at the CAPE Laboratory.

nChannel, comprising of Dr. David Salem and Eric Schmid, is one of the teams participating in the accelerator program. The idea for their technology was born several years ago when NASA sponsored a project at the university to develop composite materials which have low density and are thermally insulating while still being strong.

“Composites are materials which utilize two or more distinct components together to achieve a better performing product than either material could achieve on its own. Our technology uses this strategy to produce polymer composites which contain long hollow channels with diameters up to 1,000 times smaller than human hair. These nano-channels impart excellent thermal insulation properties, while also allowing for a strong, lightweight final polymer composite to be designed,” explained Eric. “These materials could be used to build high strength, lightweight space capsules which would insulate against heat loss while in orbit or traveling through deep space. These composites can also be used to develop construction materials for use on Earth, as well as be used in clothing and food containers.”

Eric and Dr. Salem working with the CEAST 9350 Impact Tester, one of the many pieces of equipment at the CAPE Laboratory. 

In addition to working on this project, Dr. Salem is also the Director of the Composites and Polymer Engineering Laboratory (CAPE) as well as a professor at SDSM&T. Dr. Salem  is the original principal investigator on the NASA project application, while Eric has been working on developing this material for four years in pursuit of his PhD under Dr. Salem’s guidance at the CAPE Lab.

According to Eric, suggestions and advice from experienced entrepreneurs prompted the team to apply for the South Dakota Engineering Accelerator. “Our formal training in the STEM disciplines did not prepare us for forming or running a business, so the SDEA was an excellent opportunity to learn the basics of taking an engineering idea to a commercialized application. It has also been a great networking event amongst new and old entrepreneurs, and has been an overall outstanding experience,” said Eric. “Forming a STEM-oriented business is not an easy process. There are many intricate nuances which vary in their level of importance, and deciding which tasks to tackle first can be overwhelming. The most valuable thing that we’ve learned in the program so far is that it is incredibly important to assemble the right team of people to accomplish these tasks in an efficient and effective manner.”

Since joining the accelerator program, the team has started to formulate business models and has been focusing on the different aspects of commercializing their technology. However, that doesn’t mean that these engineers have been spending any less time in the lab. “We are also continuously developing new laboratory techniques and composite materials which will be used under the existing technology platform,” mentioned Eric.

About the Enterprise Institute:

The Enterprise Institute began in 2001 when a group of business leaders and entrepreneurs decided to help identify and launch high-growth businesses in South Dakota. The mission of the Enterprise Institute is to encourage and assist the establishment of growth enterprises in the state. Since 2006, the nonprofit has organized and currently administers seven member managed angel investment funds in the state of South Dakota. To date, the funds include over 130 individual accredited investors and have raised over $7,500,000 to invest in startup companies in the state and region.

About the Blackstone Charitable Foundation:

The Blackstone Charitable Foundation was founded at the time of Blackstone’s IPO in 2007 with substantial commitments from the Firm’s employees. Influenced by the enterprising heritage of the firm and its founders, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation is directing its resources and applying the intellectual capital of the firm to foster entrepreneurship in areas nationwide and globally. Through its investment expertise across several asset classes and geographies, Blackstone has a unique perspective on the global economy and a heightened understanding of how entrepreneurial activity is often the crucial catalyst in the growth of successful businesses, industries, and communities.

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