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From hurricanes to earthquakes, the space station experience overcomes challenges

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Camila Morales-Navas makes final preparations for an electrochemical ammonia removal system before the equivalent flight test. Credit: University of Puerto Rico

The saying goes that space is difficult, and doing science in space presents its own challenges. Few researchers had to weather hurricanes and earthquakes, although there were only two hurdles a team of chemists in Puerto Rico faced in moving their research to the International Space Station.

The investigation examines, elucidating the electrochemical oxidation mechanism of ammonia via electrochemical techniques on the International Space Station (electrophoretic oxidation of ammonia), ammonia oxidation in microgravity.

Ammonia is a small molecule made up of nitrogen and hydrogen. Oxidation is a reaction that involves oxygen that breaks down these molecules, producing nitrogen gas, water and electrical energy. A compound in human urine, urea, can be converted into ammonia, making it an easily available resource. The oxidation process can then be used to produce water and energy, both of which are critical needs of future long-term space missions, as well as methods for removing ammonia from a spacecraft or habitat.

The team previously developed an electrochemical ammonia removal system, or EAR, which is a similar setup to a battery that oxidizes ammonia electrically or with an electric current. They put EAR to the test on several parabolic flights, which allow scientists to reach microgravity in the short term by putting the plane in free fall. The results showed that microgravity decreased the performance of the fuel cells by 20 to 65 percent. Researchers suspected that the absence of buoyancy in microgravity caused the decline, but they need to do more research to confirm this hypothesis.

“You only have about 25 seconds in equivalent flights,” says lead researcher Carlos Cabrera, a professor of chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras in San Juan. So we wanted to use the space station to look at the operation for a longer period of time.

A proposal to investigate electrophysiological oxidation of ammonia received approval from NASA in 2016 under the auspices of the ISS National Laboratory. The team initially had to redesign the original flying equipment, reducing the size of the EAR from the size of a small refrigerator to something akin to a shoebox.

That task falls to Camila Morales Navas, Ph.D. in chemistry. A university student who worked on the equivalent flight tests.

Hurricane Maria swept through Dominica, Saint Croix and Puerto Rico in September 2017. The losses totaled more than $ 91 billion, most of them in Puerto Rico, where nearly 3,000 people died. The Category 5 storm also left the island’s residents without electricity. Five months later, a quarter of the population is still without electricity.

“We didn’t have campus authority until January 2018,” says Morales-Navas. “We can figure things out on paper, but we need the energy to test configurations for smaller equipment. Fortunately, we had a power generator in our lab at the Molecular Science Research Center, so we kept working.”

More obstacles are yet to come. In late 2019 and early 2020, Puerto Rico experienced a series of earthquakes that switched off electricity again, and the university closed until building inspections were completed. In March of this year, the global epidemic shut down the campus and the laboratory, and in August, Tropical Storm Isaias turned off electricity again.

“It’s like extreme sports, living on this island for the past three years,” says Morales Navas.

Through it all, I kept working, and by August 2020 the small appliances were ready. The investigation finally boarded to the station on NG-14, the 14th cargo flight of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus resupply vehicle that launched on October 2.

Running the same experiment also poses some challenges.

“A microgravity environment without buoyancy influences reactions in the system,” says Morales-Navas. “If gaseous products form in bubbles, they may prevent further reactions.”

The researchers included repeated experiments in their design so that even if the bubbles affected some runs, they could still collect data from others.

“Astronauts going to Mars will need energy,” Cabrera adds. “Our goal is to bring technology to the level of readiness for long-term missions.”

Tropical Storm Isaias is heading towards Hispaniola with heavy rains

Quote: From hurricanes to earthquakes, the space station experiment overcomes challenges (14 October 2020) Retrieved October 15, 2020 from https://phys.org/news/2020-10-hurricanes-earthquakes-space-station.html

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