As a NASA research satellite orbits earth, its sensors, solar panels and cameras twist and turn to track rain and snowfall hundreds of kilometres away. Precision-engineered gears move the large, sensitive equipment in the vacuum of space.
A special lubricant is used on these gears to keep them turning smoothly. It must be able to withstand the extreme conditions of space and keep working for the lifetime of the satellite, which can be up to 50 years.
For the engineers on the ground working on such space technology, developing lubricants like these poses a technical challenge: how to test products on earth which must work in space.
With few laboratories available to run tests in space conditions, one answer lies in the use of new software in supercomputers that can simulate chemical products, without touching a test tube or a Petri dish. This approach is known as computational chemistry.
“It isn’t simply the software that is special, it’s also the ability to test the theories of scientists and engineers,” says Rajappan Vetrivel, head of computational chemistry at Shell. “We can make discoveries that are impossible in a physical laboratory – discoveries that could help solve some of mankind’s biggest challenges.”
Supercomputers allow scientists to build chains of molecules on a screen and make assessments of how products will perform.