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Not just cool – it’s a gas

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Posted September 15, 2014
Smoke. Copyright Macluskie/Wikipedia

Smoke. Copyright Macluskie/Wikipedia

In space, a new way of producing gas is being tested for steering satellites. On Earth, it is now fighting fires without harming the environment – and business insiders say it could be revolutionary.

Supported by ESA, a Dutch start-up company is applying this space-age ‘cool-gas generator’ to fighting fires in sensitive locations, like data centres, libraries and petrochemical plants.

“Gas extinguishers are used wherever you don’t want any damage, so you can’t use water to put out fires,” explains Edwin Verver of Exxfire BV, now hosted at ESA’s business incubator in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

The inert nitrogen gas dilutes the oxygen in a room, suffocating the flames.

Most space missions end as onboard fuel runs low. But Proba-2’s gaseous xenon fuel tank includes four COGEX solid-propellant cool gas generators, which can be ignited to release gaseous nitrogen at room temperature, replenishing fuel tank pressure to squeeze out more performance. Copyright ESA/Bradford Engineering/TNO

Most space missions end as onboard fuel runs low. But Proba-2’s gaseous xenon fuel tank includes four COGEX solid-propellant cool gas generators, which can be ignited to release gaseous nitrogen at room temperature, replenishing fuel tank pressure to squeeze out more performance. Copyright ESA/Bradford Engineering/TNO

But while today’s high-pressure cylinders require a great deal of maintenance – like refilling at regular intervals – Exxfire’s cool-gas generator stores the gas in solid form in an unpressurised cylinder.

On top of this, the completely inert nitrogen is environmental friendly.

Russia’s Mir space station seen from Space Shuttle Atlantis during the approach for docking on 15 January 1997. Copyright NASA

Russia’s Mir space station seen from Space Shuttle Atlantis during the approach for docking on 15 January 1997. Copyright NASA

Space programme roots

It all started with Russia’s space programme. Using a combination of solid materials that chemically binds gases, the Russian invention controls the release with an electrical current.

This mixture offers an interesting feature: comparable devices like car airbags disgorge very hot gas but this one emits gas at ambient temperature.

This artist's view shows Proba-2 fully operational in its final orbit. Its front side is continuously oriented toward the Sun, displaying instruments used for solar observation. LYRA (LYman alpha Radiometer) can be seen as the three vertical circles on the right. Just below it is SWAP (Sun Watcher using Active pixel system detector and image Processing) – the grey surface in the right bottom corner. In the center of the white panel, we can see the SPC (Solar Panel Concentrator) – the two vertical triangle mirrors – and below it, the DSS (Digital Sun Sensor) – the yellow grey box with a circular hole. On the satellite's left side can be seen one of its three TPMUs (Thermal Plasma Measurement Units) – the circular shape behind the solar panel – and the two extended DSLP (Dual Segmented Langmuir Probe) antennas extending from each corner of the solar array to study the space environment. Proba stands for PRoject for OnBoard Autonomy. The Proba satellites are among the smallest spacecraft ever to be flown by ESA, but they are making a big impact in the field of space technology. Proba-2 is the second of the series, building on nearly eight years of successful Proba-1 experience. Proba-2 is the result of ESA’s commitment to technological innovation. Altogether, 17 new technological developments and four scientific experiments are being flown on Proba-2. Copyright ESA/P. Carril, 2009

This artist’s view shows Proba-2 fully operational in its final orbit. Its front side is continuously oriented toward the Sun, displaying instruments used for solar observation. LYRA (LYman alpha Radiometer) can be seen as the three vertical circles on the right. Just below it is SWAP (Sun Watcher using Active pixel system detector and image Processing) – the grey surface in the right bottom corner. In the center of the white panel, we can see the SPC (Solar Panel Concentrator) – the two vertical triangle mirrors – and below it, the DSS (Digital Sun Sensor) – the yellow grey box with a circular hole.
On the satellite’s left side can be seen one of its three TPMUs (Thermal Plasma Measurement Units) – the circular shape behind the solar panel – and the two extended DSLP (Dual Segmented Langmuir Probe) antennas extending from each corner of the solar array to study the space environment.
Proba stands for PRoject for OnBoard Autonomy. The Proba satellites are among the smallest spacecraft ever to be flown by ESA, but they are making a big impact in the field of space technology. Proba-2 is the second of the series, building on nearly eight years of successful Proba-1 experience. Proba-2 is the result of ESA’s commitment to technological innovation. Altogether, 17 new technological developments and four scientific experiments are being flown on Proba-2. Copyright ESA/P. Carril, 2009

Seeing potential applications both in space and on Earth, the Dutch research organisation TNO negotiated for the rights outside of Russia.

With funding from ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme and the Dutch government, TNO explored a number of applications, from space propulsion to inflating life vests.

The cool-gas generator has already been tested in space on ESA’s Proba-2 satellite, repressurising the propellant tank.

ESA engineer Pierrik Vuilleumier notes it has worked well on Proba-2: “In the future, it could be used in niche space applications, such as powering mechanical actuators.”

Exxfire team: (from left) Gregor van Egdom (Product Developer), Edwin Verver (Business Development Director), Harm Botter (Founder & CEO), Jeremy Fielding (Systems Expert Detection and Electronics) and Berry Sanders (CTO). Copyright Exxfire BV

Exxfire team: (from left) Gregor van Egdom (Product Developer), Edwin Verver (Business Development Director), Harm Botter (Founder & CEO), Jeremy Fielding (Systems Expert Detection and Electronics) and Berry Sanders (CTO). Copyright Exxfire BV

Space tech to snuff out fires

A great plus is the nitrogen’s temperature, observes Edwin Verver: “Gas released from high pressure into a low-pressure room would become very cold – which could destroy a hard drive, for example. This new device avoids that.”

To handle the cold, the pipes that distribute the pressurised nitrogen and other gases in most of today’s fire extinguisher systems must be extremely robust. Exxfire’s approach, however, uses a much lighter, cheaper tubing network.

Exxfire fire extinguishers mounted in server room. Copyright Exxfire BV

Exxfire fire extinguishers mounted in server room. Copyright Exxfire BV

And while some competing systems use chemicals or aerosols, the pure nitrogen from the cool-gas generator does not deplete the ozone layer or contribute to global warming.

The solid material remains inside the generator and can be recycled and partly reused without severe consequences for the environment.

More applications are already in sight, perhaps inflating life jackets for jet pilots or feeding oxygen masks for medical evacuation teams.

Source: ESA

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