Álvaro Romero-Calvo is sending research up, up and away with Blue Origin.
The second-year aerospace PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder has won the 2021 Ken Souza Memorial Student Spaceflight Research Program, sponsored by the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research, earning him a payload slot on a future Blue Origin New Shepard sub-orbital launch.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity. It’s a paradigm shift in the space industry; even more private companies are taking the lead in offering microgravity research platforms,” Romero-Calvo said. “It is a big honor for us and for CU Boulder.”
As a student in Professor Hanspeter Schaub’s Autonomous Vehicle Systems laboratory, Romero-Calvo is conducting research into low-gravity fluid mechanics and ferrohydrodynamics.
He applied to the ASGSR competition hoping to test a new way to conduct water electrolysis in microgravity using a magnetically enhanced system to separate liquids from gasses.
“We want to use magnetic fields to induce buoyancy in microgravity. In space, a bubble of gas in a liquid will remain suspended in the liquid and start mixing in unwanted ways. It doesn’t float to the surface,” Romero-Calvo said.
Imagine a glass of fizzy soda. On Earth, the bubbles of CO2 quickly float to the top, but in the absence of gravity, those bubbles have nowhere to go; they stay suspended in the liquid.
If you have any device that employs multiphase flows in orbit, such as many biological experiments or heat transfer technologies, and you need to remove a gas from it, you have a problem,” Romero-Calvo said.
There are existing techniques to separate gasses from liquids in space, but they all have certain limitations. Water electrolysis is a key part of the air recycling systems on the ISS. However, due to the low-gravity environment, a layer of gas bubbles tends to form over the electrodes in the system due to the absence of buoyancy, leading to important efficiency losses.
Romero-Calvo is hoping this new approach, using a passive, non-powered magnetic field, can efficiently generate an artificial gravity force to manage bubbles.
“We’ve studied this fundamentally. We’ve modeled it. Now we need to do a technology demonstrator in space to validate this new approach,” Romero-Calvo said.
Enter the competition. Named for Ken Souza, a longtime friend and leader to ASGSR, it offers student investigators the chance to develop ideas for the future of gravitational research. In addition to a slot on an upcoming New Shepard rocket, Romero-Calvo also receives a $1,000 grant to prepare the payload.
“I would like to thank all the people that have made this flight experiment possible. Dr. Schaub, lots of people at CU Boulder in the legal services department helping to draw up contracts — everyone has done an extraordinary job,” Romero-Calvo said. “There's no test facility nearly as good as space, so I’m absolutely thrilled with this flight opportunity. Space is always the biggest inspiration for any space engineer!”