CFCC graduate student wins NASA Space Technologies Research Fellowship

Colorado School of Mines graduate student Duc Nguyen was awarded a prestigious NASA Space Technologies Research Fellowship (NSTRF). The fellowship will support Duc throughout his two-year master’s degree program in Mines’ Department of Mechanical Engineering and includes two 10-week “immersions” at NASA Kennedy Space Center during the summer months.

The objective of the program is to develop ceramic microchannel reactors for synthesizing fuel on the surface of Mars. One of the biggest challenges to enabling human exploration on Mars is the scarcity of readily usable resources for use by researchers on the red planet. Capacity for payloads is too limited to carry sufficient supplies from the Earth to Mars for this kind of mission. An approach to overcome this is in situ resource utilization (ISRU), where the limited resources of Mars are converted into valuable products for use by astronauts. In this project, the ice and CO2 found in abundance on Mars are used to make methane. Methane can then be used as a fuel for astronauts for a return trip to earth. This project proposes to apply a ceramic microchannel reactor as an innovative ISRU methanation reactor to effectively and efficiently power this process to support Mars missions. Specifically, the proposed technology targets NASA TA 7.1.3 Processing and Production element, addressing the processing Mars in situ CO2 and H2 and the production of methane as propellants needed for science and the crew.

Schematic of two layers of the ceramic microchannel reactor for methane generation.

Schematic of two layers of the ceramic microchannel reactor for methane generation.

Microchannel reactors offer many improvements over current chemical processing technology by intensifying heat and mass transfer processes. Miniaturization of flow passages to the sub-millimeter scale has been found to significantly increase heat and mass transfer rates compared to traditional reactors. This enhanced thermal regulation can improve product yield and selectivity, as well as increase catalyst lifetime by inhibiting hot-spot formation. Several studies have demonstrated that microchannel reactors improve performance while simultaneously reducing footprint and initial cost compared to traditional reactor designs.

The majority of microchannel reactors described in the literature are fabricated from metals. While potentially costly, metallic microreactors benefit from favorable material properties and well-established fabrication techniques. Alternatively, the use of ceramic materials enables extremely high-temperature operation in harsh chemical environments not suitable for metallic equivalents.

The program begins in August of 2017. The Primary Investigator is Associate Professor Neal P. Sullivan of the Mechanical Engineering Department.