CORVALLIS - If humans ever do make the long, exhausting trip to Mars, some of the life support technology they use may well have been developed by researchers and even undergraduate students at Oregon State University.
An ambitious new two-year, $500,000 project sponsored by NASA is trying to take advantage of the OSU College of Engineering's long-standing leadership in "fluidized bed" technology, an engineering concept with Earth-bound applications in everything from biomedicine to oil processing.
But in outer space, a similar technology shows particular promise for recycling biological and human wastes.
"On a long voyage in space, everything has to be recycled," said Goran Jovanovic, an associate professor of chemical engineering at OSU. "If you're going to go on a years-long trip to Mars you won't be taking along years-worth of food and water. The initial supplies of those materials have to be used over and over again."
Fluidized beds are an excellent engineering platform for the development of needed recycling technologies, Jovanovic said. Fluidization is the process in which a bed of solid particles is suspended in a gas or liquid into a fluid-like state, which can be used for a variety of chemical reactions and operations in different industrial applications.
But there's a catch. All of the existing technology depends in part on gravity as part of its operation, and obviously - in space - that key element will be missing.
So OSU engineers are trying to perfect an actual device, which is smaller, lighter and uses more innovative materials than previous efforts, which can make fluidized beds operate with magnetic forces substituting for the effects of gravity.
"Devices such as this can mimic what Mother Nature does in breaking down wastes into carbon, hydrogen, water and other compounds," Jovanovic said. "It's a delicate task to get all the physical, chemical and engineering requirements working together properly in the absence of gravity and with limited energy resources.
"But by the end of 2001," Jovanovic added, "we hope to have a finished device sitting on a NASA desk in Houston."
OSU is collaborating on the project with Umpqua Research of Myrtle Creek, Ore. - a high-tech company founded by two NASA engineers who moved to Oregon because they liked to fish . The concept was demonstrated two years ago with a different $100,000 NASA grant.
The complex device, when finished, will use ferromagnetic beads, microwaves, polymers, magnetism and other forces and materials to do the filtering work necessary to break down biological wastes essentially into carbon dioxide and clean water.
In this research process, the university is involving both graduate and undergraduate students in a variety of ways, not the least of which is performing some experiments in March as part of NASA's program of Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities. In this program, a specially equipped Boeing 707 is flown in huge, looping arcs and power dives to provide brief periods of weightlessness. Not-so-fondly called the "vomit comet," the aircraft is widely used both for research and astronaut training.
During the flights, students and other researchers will check equipment for its durability and function, adjust instruments and acquire data - quickly, before the plane reaches the bottom of its arc and begins lunging upwards again.
"We try to spread the engineering design activities throughout our engineering curriculum, including the freshman year," Jovanovic said. "And the fascinating project we're doing with NASA will even be the focus of some work in which we're involving Corvallis high school students. The younger students will get to observe, actually operate some of the equipment we use in this NASA research project and produce some of the ferromagnetic particles we need."
Ultimately, Jovanovic said, the processes perfected in this research may have applications not only in space but also other needs on Earth, such as in certain tasks to produce pharmaceuticals or in environmental applications.
"This is an exciting time to be a chemical engineer, there are so many new technologies evolving," Jovanovic said. "And it's an exciting time to be an OSU student who gets to take part in this, developing technology that literally may some day help make possible a trip for humans to Mars."