OSU CubeLab Team to Design Microgravity Experiment

Posted: April 12, 2010

A multidisciplinary team led by members of the Ohio State Aerospace Engineering program has been tasked with launching a small payload to the U.S. National Laboratory aboard the Destiny module of the International Space Station (ISS).  As part of the global call to increase accessibility to space, a company called NanoRacks signed a Space Act Agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in September 2009 to achieve an affordable, streamlined process for launching small experimental packages to the ISS.  Any paying customer receives the support services of NanoRacks to launch the payload.  The company operates a hardware platform in the Destiny Lab of the ISS known as an EXPRESS (Expedite the Processing of Experiments to Space Station) Rack.  Each EXPRESS Rack is capable of stowing 16 small enclosures called CubeLabs, which are cubes having a side length of 10 centimeters as well as their own thermal, power, and data management systems.

Through the support of Belcan Corporation, an engineering support firm based in Cincinnati, Ohio State University is poised to deliver one of the first scientific experiments from academia that NanoRacks will handle since its inception.  The student team is being led by aerospace engineering major Kevin Disotell and advised by Dr. Hayrani Oz, professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Ohio State.  In addition, Dr. Umit Ozkan and Dr. Burcu Mirkelamoglu of the Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering are serving as technical advisors for the team.

The Ohio State experiment is focused on isolating the effect of gravity on the synthesis of ceria nanoparticles by analyzing the crystal structure formed from growth under microgravity conditions. Ceria (CeO2) is used as a support or catalyst in many technologically important reactions in heterogeneous catalysis, such as high-temperature coatings, solid oxide fuel cells, preferential oxidation of carbon monoxide and NOx abatement. The ceria nanostructure plays an important role in the level of catalytic activity achievable when introduced to a chemical reaction.

It has been shown in previous microgravity experiments dealing with semiconductor crystals, for example, that buoyancy-driven convection influences the crystalline structure in typical Earth-based synthesis, leading to imperfections in the crystal and hence reduced performance in semiconductor devices. Since buoyancy-driven convection is a phenomenon associated with gravity, the Space Station is a prime site for conducting the experiment; the gravitational acceleration at the radius of the ISS orbit is about one-millionth of that which is measured at sea-level on Earth.  The proposed experiment is aimed at synthesizing cerium (IV) oxide (ceria) nanoparticles in the presence of microgravity and returning the samples to Earth in order to study the effect of gravity on the crystal growth and defect structure. Ozkan and Mirkelamoglu are experts in the area of heterogeneous catalysis, and will supervise an undergraduate student from chemical engineering in the sample analyses.

“This project has the value of scientific merit while serving as an instructional opportunity for undergraduate students on the team.  It’s very much a real-world engineering challenge that we’ll be attacking on a fundamental level,” said Disotell.  Eleven aerospace engineering undergraduates will contribute to the design, testing, validation, and extensive documentation required to launch the payload.  The Ohio State experiment is scheduled to be launched aboard STS-133 (Space Shuttle Discovery), which is being advertised as the final flight in the history of NASA’s shuttle program.

Category: Undergraduate