220 Miles Straight Up

by Michael Mullaney on August 31, 2009

The successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on Friday means an important little piece of Rensselaer is floating in orbit above the earth.

The Constrained Vapor Bubble project, led by ChemE professors Joel Plawsky and Peter Wayner, is now safely in space and slated for installation in the International Space Station. You can see the project patch above. The experimental CVB heat transfer system, which will be tested board the ISS over the next few years, is ideal for space applications because it has no moving parts and, as a result, should work for a gazillion hours without the need for repair or replacement. You can read all about the CVB here.

Heat transfer or cooling systems are ubiquitous, and required almost everywhere you have computer chips crunching numbers. Your PC and Nintendo Wii both have heat sinks, as do laptops, iPhones, and just about anything else these days that switches “on” – including satellites. The systems help move heat away from the heat source, with the goal of preventing these heat sources from overheating and sustaining damage.

This is usually done with a small fan and/or an odd-shaped piece of metal with many spikes or towers. The fan pushes the warm air out of a vent, while the heat is also transferred to the spikey metal (with its abundant surface area) and dissipated. The CVB is considerably more slick. It’s basically just a tiny glass vial filled with liquid. One end is exposed to the heat source, which causes the liquid to evaporate and migrate over to the other end, which is exposed to a vent. Heat escapes up the vent, which causes the evaporated gas to re-condense back into liquid, and travel back to the heated end. The cycle continues, ad infinitum.

Along with the engineering aspect of testing of the CVB for validation and performance, the data resulting from the experiment – which, awesomely, is video footage Plawsky and Wayner will see live as it’s beamed from the ISS to a NASA research center – could lead to a better fundamental understanding of evaporation, condensation, boiling, and all of the tricky place inbetween where solid, liquid, and gas meet.

Astronauts will work over the next few weeks to assemble and calibrate the CVB. After that, Wayner says, “we’ll know if we have a base hit, a double, or maybe even a home run.” Here’s hoping for an out-of-the-park grand slam.

The CVB project is the latest in a series of important contributions that Rensselaer has made to NASA and the space program. In fact, not three months ago, alum Gregory Wiseman was named a new NASA atronaut.