The microgravity environemt presents a convenient setting for combustion experiments as flames behave differently

Green fuels research aboard the ISS

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano will study the combustion of eco-friendly fuels in the microgravity of the International Space Station (ISS) in a joint project of Nasa and the Italian Space Agency.

During the Flame Combustion Experiment, designed by two Italian research institutions, Parmitano will try to compare the characteristics of two different types of biofuel when burnt in the  microgravity environment. Each test run will require just one drop of 50 to 50 per cent mix of n-heptane/ethanol and 50 to 50 per cent n-hexanol/n-decane.

The research will provide benchmark data to help validate bio-fuel combustion models. The International Space Station offers a good setting for such work as flames burn more purely in a weightless environment. Researchers believe that gaining more insight into combustion in space will also improve their understanding of these processes on Earth.

"It's a combustion experiment for less-polluting combustion fuels," Parmitano said. "It will study combustion in order to understand how to make it better, so that the [products] of combustion, which normally are toxic substances, either disappear or [are] reduced to a minimum."

The project’s principal investigator Patrizio Massoli said biofuels are hard to crack as their composition not only varies according to the type of biomass used but also reflects seasonal influences. "It is really difficult to define individual behaviour. Scientifically, it makes sense to study the 'surrogates' that well describe the combustion properties of a bio-fuel," he said.  

According to Daniel Dietriech, a project scientist at Nasa’s Glenn Research Centre, the best way to solve the problem is to focus on mixtures of very simple and well-understood fuels. "These surrogate fuels are designed to behave very much like the target bio-fuel. And by using well-understood component fuels, we can learn a lot about the nature of the bio-fuel and how it would interact in real terrestrial engines and motors."

The experiment, conducted in the US Destiny module of the ISS, will use the same hardware that was used for the Flame Extinguishing Experiment conducted aboard the space station from 2009 to 2011. That investigation, like FLEX-ICE-GA, used Glenn's Multi-User Droplet Combustion Apparatus in the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR).

American and Italian scientists will share the data equally between them.  

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