Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Space research may ease dependency on petroleum
Posted: August 27, 2000

Are cheaper gasoline and other forms of energy in America's future? NASA and industry are funding research to study zeolites -- crystals with the potential to reduce the cost and pollution associated with producing gasoline and other petroleum products.

Zeolites have a rigid crystal structure with a network of interconnected tunnels and cages, similar to a honeycomb. Virtually all the world's gasoline is produced using zeolites. Industry also uses natural and synthetic zeolites to make numerous products: In cat litter, zeolites absorb odors; in water filters, zeolites remove impurities; in laundry detergents, they soften hard water by removing calcium; and in cars, zeolites act as catalytic converters, reducing pollutants.

The zeolite crystals grown on the ground, left, are smaller than ones grown in space, right. If larger, more perfect crystals can be grown, researchers learn more about the way zeolites are made. This information might be used to improve petroleum processing and reduce costs and pollution. Photo: NASA-MSFC
Industry wants to improve zeolite crystals so that more gasoline can be produced from a barrel of oil, making the industry more efficient. To facilitate this goal, NASA has helped industry fly zeolite crystals on three NASA Space Shuttle missions since 1992. They are scheduled to be grown on a Shuttle mission again next year, and on the International Space Station -- the first permanent research laboratory in space.

To learn more about these useful crystals, researchers from industry and academia are conducting experiments through NASA's Space Product Development Program, managed at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. This program helps industry take advantage of space and microgravity -- the near-weightless environment inside an orbiting spacecraft -- to create new products, improve existing ones and find solutions to questions or problems.

"Our experiments in space have shown that larger and better quality crystals can be grown in microgravity," said former Space Shuttle crewmember Dr. Albert Sacco Jr., director of the Center for Advanced Microgravity Materials Processing -- a NASA Commercial Space Center at Northeastern University in Boston. This center is one of 16 NASA Commercial Space Centers, each focusing on a different area of research of interest to industry.

"Data from space experiments are helping us grow better zeolite crystals on Earth," said Sacco. "Industry wants to fine-tune the structure of zeolites to get more gasoline out of a barrel of oil during the refining process. An increase of 1 percent in the amount of gasoline from a barrel of oil is equal to an approximately $400 million reduction in the balance of payments in America. Theoretically, this could lead to less dependence on foreign oil."

The problem with zeolite crystals produced on Earth is that they are extremely small -- roughly 2 to 8 microns, about the size of microscopic bacteria. To better define the structures of zeolites, scientists need to grow crystals that are 200 to 1000 times larger.

Onboard shuttle Columbia's STS-73 mission, in 1995, crewmember Dr. Albert Sacco Jr. loads crystals into the Zeolite Crystal Growth experiment. Photo: NASA-MSFC
"In microgravity, materials come together more slowly, allowing zeolite crystals to form larger and with better order," said Sacco, who worked as a payload specialist and grew zeolites aboard the Space Shuttle on the STS-73 mission in 1995. "These larger, more perfectly formed space-grown crystals tell us more about the way the crystal is made and how it works."

NASA's Commercial Space Center at Northeastern University is working both to help industry improve petroleum fuel refining and to develop new fuels that are cheaper and cleaner. Hydrogen is one of the candidate fuels being investigated. Companies have designed engines that burn hydrogen, but scientists must find a way to store and transport it safely and easily.

"Zeolites can store quite a bit of hydrogen, but we need to find out how to store enough hydrogen so that it can be used in a car fuel tank at normal operating temperatures and pressures," said Sacco. "One way to do this would be to make zeolites or zeo-type materials that can store hydrogen much like a liquid in a bottle."

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it's pollution free. Sacco predicts hydrogen fuel will be a "leapfrog technology" that changes the way we live -- much like the revolutionary change when the world moved from coal to petroleum as its primary fuel.

"If we can find a way to store hydrogen safely and inexpensively, in 10 to 15 years, you'll see America turning from gasoline to hydrogen as the main fuel source," said Sacco.

While most of their 1999 research focused on zeolites, Sacco and his research team at the Commercial Space Center in Boston also are studying how space and microgravity can be used to improve other materials.

They are working with a company to study how gravity affects crystals used to make photographic films. Other universities and research institutions are teaming with them to develop sensors that may reduce pollution released as automobiles burn fuel.

"Through Commercial Space Centers like ours, NASA will help industry take advantage of a national resource -- the International Space Station -- the most sophisticated laboratory to ever be put in orbit," Sacco said.