UCF team developing ‘slow burn’ chemical energy power for deep-space NASA missions

NASA awards UCF scientists $550,000 grant to develop technology

ORLANDO, Fla. – A University of Central Florida research team is on a mission to deliver a cost-effective alternative to solar energy that will provide storable power for future NASA spacecraft and, eventually, colonies in deep space.

Before we start working on heat and electricity for deep-space astronaut missions NASA wants to have storable energy for 10 to 20 days enough to provide heat and electricity for a short-duration spaceflight.

“When you go past Mars there’s not enough solar flux to provide power by solar energy,” Richard Blair said. “it’s a little daunting when you have a project like this, there’s a lot of prep work.”

Blair, who has a Ph.D. in materials chemistry, is a co-investigator on the project along with Subith Vasu and Anthony Terracciano.

The trio presented the concept of harvested chemical energy to NASA last year and was awarded a $550,000 Space Technology research grant to develop their “high-risk-high reward” theory over three years.

UCF and the University of Texas-El Paso were the only institutions selected to tackle NASA’s deep space energy challenge.

In all, NASA selected 14 university-led research proposals to study early-stage technologies relevant to energy and other space mission needs.

The whole idea hinges on a chemical combination that utilizes silicon and at least one other element that would be stored then exposed to oxygen to achieve a “slow burn” for heat or electricity when needed.

“The temperature that we’re shooting for is probably going to be in the 1400 Kelvin area (1126 degrees)," Terracciano said, “ Room temperature is about 300 Kelvin ( 80 degrees).”

Terracciano said the idea is to use energy that can deliver heat and electricity in very hot or very cold interplanetary destinations.

“Even if you don’t have a person on board your electronics can’t go down to super cold temperatures because they might not work," Terracciano said.

NASA’s working assignment for this challenge is called Chemical Heat Integrated Power Systems.

Subith, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering, is the principal investigator on the project. He said he is convinced their theory will work.

Subith is designing the container that will hold a reactor he likened to an old mosquito repellent coil.

The coil-like power sources.
The coil-like power sources. (WKMG 2020)

“The reactors that we are designing have that kind of shape,” he said. “ So, we will first have to do computer assimilations to figure out what would be the best dimension and sizing.”

The veteran researcher said NASA was looking for” any solution that would give them extended duration mission capability.”

The project is expected to draw on work from top research students and Ph.D. candidates from UCF.

Katerina Chagoya, a graduate research assistant already on the team, said the challenge is to find the right combination of chemicals to react with the introduction of oxygen.

“We are trying to generate heat from the (chemical) reaction," she said.

Terracciano said on paper the concept meets the standard to go from theory to real application.

“Mathematically we know that it will work," he said. "Now, there’s a fine-tuning that we go through, that’s where the science comes in.”

Blair said by the end of three years a “table model” should be ready to present to NASA. Anything more will require more time.

For more information on the NASA projects visit www.nasa.gov/strg.

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