Environmentally-friendly fire extinguisher braves space's final frontier with fine mist
Monday August 20, 2012
By Katrina Pfannkuch
GOLDEN -- As far back as the mid-1990s, the Colorado School of Mines started researching how to develop a water-based fire control system as an alternative to chemical-based extinguishers.
Little did they know that the National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA) would be the key to helping them develop the technology for use in space and commercial markets.
"Back in the mid-90s, this whole process was very innovative. Traditional extinguishers were and are very effective, but not environmentally friendly or safe for people in small spaces," said Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines.
"So, we experimented with micro-sized drops of de-ionized water to create a very fine mist to see how it would interact with fire. The size of the drops determines the evaporation rate of the mist as it interacts with the fire and the time to weaken the flame. The goal is for the droplets to rapidly draw heat from fire, then dilute and asphyxiate it. Small droplets fight the fire more effectively and require less water to put it out."
According to Abbud-Madrid, to truly determine the optimal droplet size and water amount to prove the effectiveness of the extinguisher technology, they needed to test it in a low-gravity environment. Drop towers and parabolic-flight aircraft only provided seconds of testing time versus minutes, so the Colorado School of Mines approached NASA, hoping to use the Space Shuttle to collect more extensive data.
Partnering with NASA
"NASA really liked the science and practical component and supporting the combined efforts of academics and industry," said Abbud-Madrid. "They offered to help fund the project, especially because they saw applications for how it could be used on future spacecraft in place of the current Halon-based and carbon-dioxide extinguishers.
"For five years, we did computer modeling, rounds of tests in the NASA low-gravity airplane, and space hardware fabrication in addition to training the astronauts on its operation, and in 2003 we've got to do active testing on the STS-107 mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Despite the tragic end of the mission, we were able to retrieve 95 percent of the data after the accident to complete our research."
Results showed micro-size droplets between 20-60 microns are ideal, and the next step was to create a system to enable quick, effective delivery. That's when ADA Technologies was integrated into the project -- to help develop a nitrogen-based system to push the water out, creating micron-size droplets without polluting the environment, especially in small, confined spaces.
"ADA brought technology to the table for the fine water mist, and the school provided the expertise, testing facilities and research," Abbud-Madrid said.
In fact, the two teamed up as a result of a grant from the NASA Small Business Innovation Research program, which funds a small company for six months during Phase-I development to see if efforts are viable to create a marketable product.
"ADA started working on prototype development for a new hand-held extinguisher for spacecraft in 2005," said Thierry Carriere, director of technology for ADA Technologies' Fire Safety group. "We focused on converting and optimizing the basic technology from the Colorado School of Mines into operating prototypes for the last seven years, creating rounds of portable extinguishers to meet complex NASA requirements."
"Right now, we are finalizing the design and working with NASA daily at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, guiding them on fabrication of the space hardware," said Carriere. "ADA Technologies is a small company based in Littleton, Colorado, focused on research and development, so we are really excited to now also be considered experts in fire suppression technology.
"Currently we are looking at other possible viable markets for this fire extinguisher, including airplanes, hospitals, museums, mine shelters, military vehicles, tunnels, submarines and even home use. The fine water mist technology is perfect to combat a wide variety of fires while limiting damage to valuable assets."
According to Carriere and Abbud-Madrid, the project is big news, even within NASA. NASA funds hundreds of small companies, but the success of combined efforts between academics, the small business community and the NASA space program that actually result in a product successfully making it into space doesn't happen very often.
"We have a piece of hardware that will go to the International Space Station," Carriere said. "As an engineer, it doesn't get any better than that. It's great to work on something that's going to cross the finish line. Ninety-percent of projects never get there, and these combined efforts have created a product that has truly exceeded our expectations."
The fire extinguishers are targeted to be in space use some time in 2014.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Cooper at www.lightboximages.com