Carthage University Ferrofluid Experiment


While Concept Zero is no stranger to making noise for their innovative use of ferrofluid as an artistic medium, they are headed to the spotlight again—this time for bringing the magnetic fluid back to its roots. Long before there was any conception of the potential for ferrofluid’s artistic capabilities, the colloidal liquid was developed by NASA scientist, Steve Papell, as a rocket fuel. The students at Carthage University are about to bring it back home. 

When the Carthage RockSat Team submitted a proposal to the Colorado and Virginia Space Grant Consortia, they knew that their experiment would be logistically complex. They intended to test a new technique for measuring the mass of liquid in a propellant tank that uses ferrofluid as fuel. To conduct the experiment, they would need to build a ferrofluid-holding container in a magnetic field and run a current through the field at varied magnitudes. Then, they would measure the height of the peaks that formed as a result of the varied magnitudes to calculate the mass. But first, they would need a chamber that the ferrofluid didn't stain to run the equipment.

As soon as Carthage’s students were notified that their proposal was one of the few to be accepted into the program, they approached Concept Zero for a donation, and the artists were more than happy to provide them with the necessary chamber. 

Now, the Carthage University students are ready to complete the next step of the program. They will be traveling to NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia. There, they will have a chance to conduct their experiment in a two-stage, Terrier-Orion sounding rocket that will provide zero-gravity conditions. “We are using two cameras to record footage of the ferrofluid during flight,” explains Amelia Gear, one of the Carthage RockSat Team members, when asked what will happen during the four-minute-long, sub-orbital rocket launch. “After we recover the experiment from the rocket, we will compare the microgravity footage with footage gathered in earth gravity conditions and compare peak heights.”

Beyond the learning opportunity for Carthage’s students, the results of this experiment could someday have extremely practical applications. The type of fuel gauges used to run vehicles here on Earth do not work in zero-gravity, and NASA has identified finding an alternative fuel source as one of the solutions to successful deep space exploration. Depending on what Gear and her fellow students find when their holding container is exposed to zero gravity conditions, ferrofluid could hold the key.

The launch is set to take place during the summer of 2014. For now, those involved from Carthage University and Concept Zero are happy to see the experiment come this far, but they remain hopeful for future possibilities. In their opinion, ferrofluid’s potential is limitless.