How could rockets help hospital MRI machines and fuel-cell cars on the highways of the future?
Engineers at NASA Stennis Space Centre in Mississippi are testing an innovative technology that could yield new sources of both expensive helium gas (required for cooling MRI machines worldwide) and purified, high-pressure hydrogen gas (fuel-cell fuel).
NASA Stennis Space Centre, one of the top rocket test facilities in the world, produces a large quantity of hydrogen and helium gas mixture in its rocket tests — representing a substantial possible revenue stream that today is just burned or vented into the air. (NASA uses approximately 92-100 MMcf of helium yearly at Kennedy Space Centre and Stennis Space Centre, combined.)
Using Sustainable Innovations’ electrochemical Hydrogen Recovery System (HRS), NASA Stennis engineers will be able to extract hydrogen from rocket fuel line purge gas, leaving behind high-value helium, a purified stream compressed to commercial storage pressure. And with helium’s price only expected to rise as global supplies plateau, HRS’s helium extraction technology will become more and more valuable to NASA in the coming years.
The heart of the HRS is H2Renew™, a system under commercial development by Sustainable Innovations that separates and compresses hydrogen using Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) technology. Sustainable Innovations developed HRS for NASA under a Phase II Small Business Technology Transfer program, using a robust novel Expandable Modular Architecture (EMA) electrochemical cell stack that is capable of being constructed with a very large production capacity and high operating pressure.
In addition to extracting hydrogen and helium from their rocket engine test stands, NASA expects HRS will also be useful for recirculating and reusing its own hydrogen stores as well as capturing, purifying and compressing purge gas for rocket test stands. The same technology on which HRS is based will also be useful for separating hydrogen from CO2 and CO in the life support technologies now being tested and developed for its manned spaceflight missions.
On Earth, HRS and H2Renew™ have many attractive applications as well, including heat-treating of metals and semiconductor fabrication. Hydrogen used as a reducing atmosphere in such industrial applications can be recovered from process exhaust and recycled, with substantial savings to the business owner. And as fuel cell powered cars, buses, planes and ships are now being tested and rolled out, developing robust sources of hydrogen to fuel them is equally crucial today. A range of products based on HRS will help deliver hydrogen to fuelling stations and provide the compression they need. HRS — with its high capacity, high-pressure cell design — will be a valuable tool to support a hydrogen-based economy. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the opportunity. But, with HRS and NASA Stennis Space Centre, it does take a team of world class rocket scientists to realise it.