Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Power and Water the NASA Way

We’re sometimes met with a puzzled look at Isotherm Energy when we describe our hydrogen energy system architecture and its ability to store energy, generate power, recover heat, and produce potable water.  It seems the combination of functions – particularly energy and water together - is unfamiliar to many.  After three decades of working at NASA where these types of systems have been routine since the mid-1960s, I hadn’t considered that it might sound odd to those outside the aerospace industry.

A recent article about the famously jinxed Apollo 13 mission describes an early example:
“Apollo 13 lost its electricity, light, and water supply… The loss of an oxygen tank was crippling to an Apollo spacecraft because the oxygen tanks powered the fuel cells that powered the spacecraft… The electrochemical reaction of combining cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen produced electricity, heat, and potable water as byproducts.” [Popular Science, Apr 15, 2016]
Part of an unflown Apollo fuel cell [National Air and Space Museum]

The Space Shuttle also used fuel cells in a similar manner:

“Fuel cells are used in the space shuttle as one component of the electrical power system. Three fuel cell power plants, through a chemical reaction, generate all of the electrical power for the vehicle from launch through landing rollout… are individually coupled to the reactant (hydrogen and oxygen) distribution subsystem, the heat rejection subsystem, the potable water storage subsystem, and the electrical power distribution and control subsystem. The fuel cell power plants generate heat and water as by-products of electrical power generation.”

One of the three fuel cells that provides electrical power to the space shuttle orbiter [NASA]

As another more personal example, I was asked in 1991 by NASA Headquarters to conduct a study on launching water to low earth orbit for processing into hydrogen and oxygen propellants to support missions to the moon and Mars.  The published system concept I designed used an electrolyzer to produce the propellants, and then liquefy them for storage until a spacecraft docked for refueling (see schematic below).  We would revisit aspects of this configuration later at NASA when I worked on designs to provide power, propulsion, water and environmental control for lunar surface systems.

Source: “Conceptual Study of on Orbit Production of Cryogenic Propellants by Water Electrolysis”, Moran, 1991.

So the integration of proven aerospace technologies into a combined energy-water-heat recovery architecture was a natural extension of my personal experiences and background.  And I’m convinced it will serve us well as we begin to view our energy, water and food systems here on earth from a more integrated sustainable perspective.

Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems since 1982. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been involved in seven technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here