problem (e.g., with insulation or cables). Local diffusion flames anchored next to a region of solid fuel can spread and grow in size as the temperature of the solid increases. Differences in the types of convection (buoyant versus forced), flow-spread directions (with flame spread opposed to or concurrent with the flow directions), sample thickness, and charring characteristics affect the spread rate and extinction limits. Currently, the level of understanding is very low with respect to flame spread and growth with common solid fuels, such as cellulose and plastics, in a low-speed forced flow in reduced gravity. For complex solids (e.g., Nomex®, which is used extensively in space), there is even less understanding. Part of the difficulty is the lack of a reduced-gravity platform over an extended period of time for testing solids with realistic thicknesses. Because flame growth is a major concern in spacecraft fire safety, fundamental studies of solid-fuel flammability (ignition, extinction, and flame-spreading processes) are urgently needed. Validated numerical models are needed for conditions representative of the environment of future spacecraft and extraterrestrial habitats. The development of these models would require studies in which physical variables such as gravity, flow velocity, pressure, and oxygen percentage are varied. A detailed numerical model for solid-fuel combustion is also needed, along with simplified, phenomenological submodels that can be included in full-scale models of fires for large volumes, representing large portions of future space habitats.105

Smoldering, which is a surface reaction, is another mode of combustion unique to solid fuels. Smoldering is greatly affected by oxygen transport and heat loss. In reduced gravity there is less heat loss, but there is also a lower rate of oxygen transport. Thus, it is not clear whether the tendency to smolder is higher or lower in reduced gravity. Transitions between the flame and smoldering modes can also occur. Smoldering is a slow process, and so long-duration experiments are required to study it.

Other Combustion Regimes and Applications

Combustible mixtures, under supercritical conditions of increased pressure and low temperatures, are now being considered for liquid rocket fuels and for possible applications to solid-waste processing in reduced gravity.106 Supercritical combustion supports many types of propagating flames, which are susceptible to a range of flame instabilities, including some influenced by gravity. Supercritical fuel droplets in background oxidizers represent another multiphase regime of combustion, and mechanisms for atomization and spray combustion may be different in these regimes.

Microscale combustion devices reduce spatial constraints and increase operational efficiency. A fundamental weakness of such devices is the large conductive heat loss resulting in low energy-conversion efficiency. By using a heat-recirculating design (i.e., a spiral counterflow or “Swiss roll” design), this liability is eliminated.107 A number of interesting new phenomena or physical mechanisms have been proposed for use in reduced gravity. One example is a propulsion device using channels with diameters on the order of a few flame thicknesses. In this geometry, very large thrust is created by the interaction of a flame with boundary layers.108 This capability presents possibilities for propulsion engines and thrusters in microgravity using almost any available fuel.

Recommended Research in Combustion

Recommended research in combustion is summarized below and in Table 9.1 toward the end of this chapter.

Fire Safety

Improved methods for screening materials in terms of flammability in space environments will enable safer space missions. Present tests, performed in normal gravity, are not adequate for reduced-gravity scenarios. By 2020, improvements can be achieved that would supplement current screening methods. Beyond 2020, new methods could be optimized and implemented.

Research in this area should support the development of materials standards related to ignition, flame spread, and toxic or corrosive gas generation in various environments and gravitational force fields, as described in Chapter 10 (see Table 10.3).



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement