Copper is the most widely used electrical conductor. Like most metals, though, it has several drawbacks: it is heavy, expensive, and can break. Fibers that conduct electricity could be the solutions to these problems, and they are of great interest to NASA.
Conductive fibers provide lightweight alternatives to heavy copper wiring in a variety of settings, including aerospace, where weight is always a chief concern. This is an area where NASA is always seeking improved materials. The fibers are also more cost-effective than metals. Expenditure is another area where NASA is always looking to make improvements.
In the case of electronics that are confined to small spaces and subject to severe stress, copper is prone to breaking and losing connection over time. Flexible conductive fibers eliminate that problem. They are more supple and stronger than brittle copper and, thus, find good use in these and similar situations.
While clearly a much-needed material, electrically conductive fibers are not readily available. The cost of new technology development, with all the pitfalls of troubleshooting production and the years of testing, and without the guarantee of an immediate market, is often too much of a financial hazard for companies to risk.
NASA, however, saw the need for electrical fibers in its many projects and sought out a high-tech textile company that was already experimenting in this field, Syscom Technology, Inc., of Columbus, Ohio. Syscom was founded in 1993 to provide computer software engineering services and basic materials research in the areas of high-performance polymer fibers and films. In 1999, Syscom decided to focus its business and technical efforts on development of high-strength, high-performance, and electrically conductive polymer fibers. The company developed AmberStrand, an electrically conductive, low-weight, strong-yet-flexible hybrid metal-polymer yarn. The company, however, had not yet developed methods for mass production of its product. Several design features, as well, needed collaborative improvements from NASA engineers.
Recognizing the need for this technology, NASA encouraged the development and advancement of this advanced fiber for its use in future missions, while also pushing Syscom into the commercial marketplace with advanced manufacturing abilities. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and the University of Dayton also contributed expertise and funding to this revolutionary endeavor.
Today, the hybrid metal-polymer wire is replacing signal wiring in several NASA applications, as well as being considered for use as space tethers, space antennas, for electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding, and for a plethora of applications where lightweight wiring is essential.