Senior cadet Jayden Glover already has her name on a pile of awards at the Air Force Academy for her prowess in the pool with the women’s swimming team.
But she has added one more in an entirely different venue: a patent application that could revolutionize how the military builds rockets.
Glover spent the summer at Edwards Air Force Base where she worked with a team of Air Force Research Lab chemists on a new method for creating composite materials — essentially carbon fibers that are tougher than steel and lighter than aluminum.
“It involves mixing things in really small volumes,” the Fort Collins native explained.
Small in this case means nearly microscopic. It’s a process that’s painstaking but is rewarded with lighter, stronger materials.
Kamran Ghiassi, who is leading the project at Edwards, said one benefit is building more efficient rockets.
“In theory, you end up switching away from aluminum,” he explained.
In the world of space flight, a pound spent on a rocket casing is a pound that won’t get to orbit. A lighter rocket case could yield bigger payloads to space at a lower cost.
But it means mixing chemicals one minuscule drop at a time. And that’s not easy.
“There was a lot of problem-solving that went into this,” Glover explained. “It was a lot of trial and error.”
Glover wound up at Edwards as part of the academy’s Cadet Summer Research Program, which sends scores of cadets around the country during summer break to work and learn with academics, industry experts and think tanks.
A chemistry major, Glover picked the Edwards program to improve her chances of following her four years at the academy with a master’s degree in chemistry or medicine.
She spent six weeks helping solve one of the Air Force’s most vexing problems: finding a better way to get satellites in orbit.
To build the composite, droplets of chemicals are mixed together with a device that looks more like a computer chip than a blender. The chemicals react during the mixing, and byproducts are removed. Doing the mixing in tiny amounts means that how the chemical is formed can be tightly controlled.
It’s the kind of process that goes against 20th century thinking, with mass production backed by materials made in tons rather than droplets.
But, in the 21st century, new manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing could use the product of the microscopic chemistry to build big things, such as rockets.
Spending nearly every day in the laboratory, Glover mixed chemical combinations, finding more failure than success and documenting the most minute details in every step of the trial.
Glover said the work taught her the “process, problem solving and unique mindset” required to invent new technologies.
A long-distance swimmer, Glover is used to methodical labor. Long days in the pool have made her one of the fastest women in the water, including the grueling 1,650-meter freestyle.
The chemistry work found one that worked, and the Air Force is seeking a patent on the process. The military holds many patents and allows industry partners to use the discoveries to build cutting-edge products for the Pentagon.
The Air Force isn’t divulging all details of the discovery that Glover helped find. But Ghiassi said it could change how America builds things.
“This is definitely the beginning of something,” he said.
For Glover, it’s another accomplishment to add to her stack. She was appointed commander of cadet squadron and has earned all-academic honors for the swim team. She has made the commandant’s list for military skill and the dean’s list for hitting the books.
And now, in a few months, she could join the list of American inventors at the federal Patent Office.
“It’s a very cool experience,” she said.