Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE) - 01.15.14

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The Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE) studies the behavior of gases and liquids when they flow simultaneously through a "packed column", i.e., tubes filled with specially designed particles, having size typically at least 15 times smaller than the tube diameter.  Packing made of different shapes and materials are used widely in chemical engineering as a mean to enhance the contact between two non-mixing fluid phases (e.g., liquid-gas, or water-oil, etc.). Packed columns can serve as reactors, scrubbers, strippers, etc. in systems where efficient interphase contact is desired, both on Earth and in space.

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Information Pending

This content was provided by Brian J. Motil, Ph.D., and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.

Experiment Details


Principal Investigator(s)

  • Brian J. Motil, Ph.D., Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, OH, United States

  • Co-Investigator(s)/Collaborator(s)
  • Vemuri Balakotaiah, Ph.D., University of Houston, Houston, TX, United States
  • Julie Mitchell, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, United States

  • Developer(s)
    ZIN Technologies Incorporated, Cleveland, OH, United States

    Sponsoring Space Agency
    National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

    Sponsoring Organization
    Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD)

    Research Benefits
    Earth Benefits, Scientific Discovery, Space Exploration

    ISS Expedition Duration
    March 2014 - September 2014

    Expeditions Assigned

    Previous ISS Missions

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    Experiment Description

    Research Overview

    • Currently, there are no design methodologies for two-phase flow in packed beds in zero-gravity. Consequently, two-phase flow equipment for space applications cannot be optimally designed, leading to excess weight and energy consumption from overdesign.

    • Our results will provide engineers with rules to design more efficient equipment for heat/mass transfer in space. 

    • The impact of this research is scientific, technological and economic. Scientifically and technologically, it will allow for more optimally designed equipment for reactors, strippers, scrubbers and other common chemical engineering units to be used in, for example, water recovery, planetary surface processing and oxygen production. Availability of this equipment will permit planners to conceive longer duration space missions not possible today. On the economic side, optimal designs are lighter and more efficient, thus leading to savings in launch, energy use and maintenance costs.


    A basic understanding of two-phase flows through porous media is of interest in many chemical and biological processing systems as well as many geophysical applications. NASA technologies include adiabatic two-phase flows or two-phase flows with heat transfer that are relevant to life support systems, fuel cells, in-situ resource utilization, heat pipes, materials processing, production of pharmaceutical grade water, and transport of nutrients in soils. A very important unit operation that involves gas-liquid flow through porous media is the fixed Packed Bed Reactor (PBR). Examples of current space systems in which a fixed PBR is used include the Volatile Removal Assembly (VRA), the Integrated Advanced Water Recovery System (AWRS), and IntraVenous Water GENeration system (IVGEN). NASA is currently operating systems with packed bed reactors for ground and flight-based testing with little understanding of how the reduced gravity environment affects the performance and reliability of these reactors. This is especially critical when gas-liquid flows are involved. The expected outcome of this research effort is to develop a set of guidelines and tools to enable engineers to reliably design and operate packed bed reactors for microgravity as well as the lunar and Martian environments.

    Existing approaches for predicting the flow regimes and pressure drop for gas-liquid flow through a PBR are valid only for 1-g, and are based on liquid (or gas) holdup within the bed. Initial microgravity tests conducted in the reduced gravity aircraft and drop tower clearly show that the liquid holdup is significantly influenced by gravity. Furthermore, most of these models have only been verified using the "trickle flow" regime which does not exist in microgravity. Basic hydrodynamic models developed specifically for reduced gravity have been partially validated within the constraints of aircraft and ground facilities. However, typical flow ranges used for real systems require up to several minutes to develop fully which is far beyond the time scales available for ground tests. In addition, instabilities and hysteresis effects that may exist require long testing durations to establish new operating conditions. Thus, testing on the ISS is required for complete validation of the semi-empirical models.

    The flight experiment will provide critical hydrodynamic information for a project with a broader scope which includes reduced gravity aircraft and ground-based (1-g) experiments. The main objective of the overall project is to develop and validate macroscopic equations that can be used in partial and microgravity conditions to accurately predict flow pattern transitions; pressure drops; and mass transfer rates in chemical and biological reactors in which gas-liquid flows occur through randomly packed beds. The hydrodynamic investigations addressed in this experiment will focus on the transitions between flow regimes (e.g., bubbly-to-pulse flow transition) and the associated pressure gradients over the range of relevant operating regimes of the PBRs (e.g., liquid and gas flow rates, particle sizes, and fluid viscosities). These design tools will provide a fundamental understanding of these phenomena in low gravity.

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    Space Applications

    Water-recovery systems, fuel cells and other equipment on the International Space Station use packed bed reactors, but currently none are designed to handle both liquid and gas at the same time. With improved understanding of how packed bed two-phase flow works in microgravity, scientists are able to design more efficient, lightweight thermal management, air scrubbing, and water recycling systems that use less energy, benefiting the Space Station and future lunar and Mars missions.

    Earth Applications

    Design rules for gas-liquid flows through packed columns are well developed on Earth (i.e., for normal gravity) but lacking for reduced or zero gravity. The Packed Bed Reactor Experiment seeks to fill this knowledge gap by studying the hydrodynamics of gas-liquid flows in zero gravity through packed columns. By understanding how gravity affects gas-liquid flows through packed columns (or packed beds, as they are known in the industry) better, more predictive correlations for pressure drops and flow regime maps can be developed with the proper gravity-dependent terms included. 

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    Operational Requirements

    Astronaut involvement is anticipated for initial installation and set up for the experiment. Additional time may be required to change out test sections or reconfigure diagnostics. All operational functions will be controlled from ground.


    Real time downlink is not required, but downlink between test runs will be needed to verify proper experimental operation; review camera zoom, aperture and focus settings; and to determine new test conditions. The minimum set of data to downlink includes the gas and liquid flow rates; test section temperature and pressure, and a single NTSC video feed, with ground commanded switching between all high speed video recording systems utilizing an NTSC output option. Uplink data will include information to revise controllable test conditions based on evaluation of test results. No telerobotics are required.


    Post Flight Data Deliverables
    The collected data for the space-flight experiment shall be in the following format:

    1. For each test conducted, there should be a text file (.txt) using a delimiter (separator) format such as comma-separated. The data in the text file should be converted to engineering units (SI units are preferred when possible). The following information must be in each file:
      1. A unique test number (to be used to identify corresponding detailed scientific data, test section used, and flow visualization data)
      2. All pressure measurements
      3. All void fraction measurements (all channels)
      4. All temperature measurements
      5. All gas (mass) and liquid (volumetric) flow rates
      6. Data acquisition rates including video imaging rate
      7. Mission elapsed time at the start of the test (to match to acceleration measurements)
    2. In a separate file, all digital images should be provided.
    3. In a separate file, acceleration data vs. mission elapsed time should be provided in graphic format.
    4. Each test section shall be sealed (capped off) and returned.
    5. Hard Drives with raw data must be returned.

    Operational Protocols
    Information Pending

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    Results/More Information
    Information Pending

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    Results Publications

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    Ground Based Results Publications

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    ISS Patents

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    Related Publications

      Motil BJ, Balakotaiah V, Kamotani Y.  Gas-Liquid Two-Phase Flows Through Packed Beds in Microgravity. American Institute of Chemical Engineers Journal. 2003 Mar; 49(3): 557-565. DOI: 10.1002/aic.690490303.
      Revankar ST, Olenik DJ, Jo D, Motil BJ.  Local Instrumentation for the Investigation of Multi-Phase Parameters in a Packed Bed. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part E: Journal of Process Mechanical Engineering. 2007 November 1; 221(4): 187-199. DOI: 10.1243/09544089JPME142.

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    Related Websites

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