Space is a tough place to be. People complain online about Texas weather swinging from hot to freezing in mere days or hours (and maybe even display weather that belongs in all four seasons within a week), but just a couple hundred miles above the state, the swings are even more wild. Near the Earth, orbital space can be as cold as 100-150 degrees below zero in the shade, but up past the boiling point in sunlight.
But, people in spacecraft, in space suits, or even on the International Space Station don’t usually die from those obviously lethal temperatures. So, NASA isn’t just an agency that’s skilled at aeronautics and space, but is also pretty good at heating and cooling things. The proof is in the pudding (or, the lack of frozen/boiling astronauts). Plus, we shouldn’t assume that NASA stopped inventing things when the space shuttle was designed, so its HVAC tech must still be improving, right?
Many upcoming NASA space missions will need advanced heat transfer capabilities for the thermal control required to execute correctly. Several systems will be relying on this technology, including: nuclear fission power systems for future missions to places like the moon and Mars, vapor compression heat pumps in support of Lunar and Martian habitats, and also onboard spacecrafts themselves that provide thermal control and advanced life support.
So, yes, progress and invention continue, even for something as boring as heating, air conditioning, and cooling vital space systems.
A team contracted by NASA is developing a cutting-edge technology that will not only enable space systems to manage proper temperatures more efficiently, but also reduce the size and weight of associated hardware. Why? Because moving weight to space is expensive, so cutting back on weight is essential.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds a whole lot like the technology electric vehicles need. Batteries (especially when fast charging) generate a lot of heat, and you can’t put a giant air conditioning system from a building onto an EV if you want any range at all.
The Flow Boiling & Condensation Experiment
A team of researchers, headed by Issam Mudawar and including experts from Purdue University, has developed the Flow Boiling and Condensation Experiment (FBCE) to enable two-phase fluid flow and heat transfer experiments in microgravity. By utilizing a liquid that is lower in temperature and changing it into vapor, heat can be transferred more efficiently. When the liquid being supplied to the channel is subcooled (at a temperature well below boiling), this process becomes much improved. This new technique of “subcooled flow boiling” results in far better heat transfer effectiveness than other methods and could potentially be used to regulate temperatures of systems in space.
The FBCE was delivered to the ISS in August 2021 and began providing microgravity flow boiling data early the next year. The results from these experiments will allow for more efficient designs of future space systems that require temperature regulation.
Benefiting People Here On Earth
One of the big things NASA and SpaceX skeptics like to say is that the money should be spent for things people need on Earth. But, as is often the case (sunglasses are a great example), space technology often finds its way back to where it came from, and gets used for the benefit of people here on the ground.
One of the biggest problems with future EV charging is the power involved. Everyone wants an EV that can charge up in five minutes, much like a gas-powered car. But, to do that will require that we send a lot of energy through a cable into the car. Put enough electricity through a wire, and it will start generating a lot of heat, unless you make the cable huge, thick, and heavy. That’s not going to work out well if we want people to be able to charge their own EVs.
But, NASA’s technology could provide the answer.
Mudawar’s team recently used the “subcooled flow boiling” principles they learned from the NASA FBCE experiments during electric vehicle charging. With this new technology, dielectric (non-electrically conducting) liquid coolant is pumped through the charging cable to capture heat generated by current-carrying conductor. Subcooled flow boiling not only allows Mudawar’s team to deliver 4.6 times more current than any other available charger on the market today, but also removes up to 24.22 kilowatts of heat in total.
Purdue proved a new charging cable can provide 2,400 amperes of power, significantly more than the 1,400 amperes NASA estimates would be required to charge an electric car in just five minutes. This newly developed technology greatly reduces the time it takes to charge a vehicle and may pave the way for electric cars becoming much more widely used, by eliminating one of the big sticking points the naysayers bring up.
Plus, the cable is something the average person can easily grasp and plug into their car.
This Isn’t The Only Obstacle
Obviously, that level of fast charging isn’t the only thing keeping 5-minute charging from becoming reality. Battery technology, electrical infrastructure, and charging stations will all need some serious upgrades. All of these issues are being worked on by other researchers, though.
The other issue is that for many anti-EV people, it’s just an excuse. You could provide an experience that’s easier and better than gas-powered cars in every possible way, and they’d still come up with some reason to not embrace change. Change is hard, and uncomfortable, and many people are set in their ways or have weird political reasons for not making the switch.
A Bigger Question: Is This Even The Right Approach?
While the work NASA and Purdue put in here is very impressive, I also wonder whether it’s the right approach at all for the average car. For some applications, especially aviation, oceanic shipping, and large land vehicles like semi-trucks, delivering this kind of power is going to be important for electrification. But, if every car on the road regularly drew that kind of power, we’d have some serious logistical, infrastructure, and environmental questions to answer.
Personally, I don’t think replicating the gas car experience with electric is a great goal. Most charging needs to happen at home while sleeping or at work on solar power when possible, drawing much less power. Fast charging needs to fit human needs, and should only very rarely need to happen in five minutes. Even on road trips, people need to use the bathroom, eat, and stretch their legs for a few minutes. Encouraging people (probably through pricing, as ultra-mega-fast charging will be expensive to provide) to use slower options when possible would make the EV transition a lot easier.
Featured image provided by NASA. Purdue University’s Electric Vehicle charging facility can charge a car in five minutes. The charging cable is cooled internally by dielectric fluid using subcooled flow boiling. Purdue University/Jared Pike
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