European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano of Italy is part of the Expedition 36/37 mission to the International Space Station. During his six-month stay aboard the space station, he will conduct experiments to develop a baseline for studying bio-fuels. (European Space Agency)
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View of Expedition 34 Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn of NASA servicing the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR), located in the Destiny module of the International Space Station. The CIR will be used in the Flame Extinguishment Experiment Italian Combustion Experiment for Green Air (FLEX-ICE-GA) investigation. (NASA)
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Flames, like the one pictured here from the Flame Extinguishing Experiment (FLEX), burn more perfectly in microgravity, helping researchers get a better understanding of the nature of combustion in space and on Earth. (NASA)
View large image There is "a lot of Italian" on the International Space Station right now according to European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano. His first stay aboard the space station began May 28, and he will remain in orbit until November 2013. For the Italian Space Agency (ASI), a member of the European Space Agency (ESA), this is the first long-duration flight of an Italian astronaut.
"The name of my mission for ASI is Volare [fly], also something very Italian," Parmitano said in a preflight interview in April. "And we have some Italian experiments on board ... so overall there is a lot of Italian in this flight."
Although there will be several scientific investigations conducted on the space station during his six-month stay, one study in particular will rely on international cooperation between ASI and NASA. The Flame Extinguishment Experiment Italian Combustion Experiment for Green Air (FLEX-ICE-GA) was designed at the Istituto Motori of the Italian National Research Council (CNR) in Naples, Italy. CNR chose the fuels for the study. The hardware, processes and operation of the experiments are being handled by NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland.
FLEX-ICE-GA seeks answers to basic scientific questions that could have significant impact on green fuels here on Earth.
"It's a combustion experiment for less polluting kinds of combustion fuels," Parmitano said. "It will study combustion in order to understand how to ameliorate - to make it better - so that the results of combustion which normally are toxic substances, how to make them either disappear or reduce them to the minimum."
The FLEX-ICE-GA bio-fuels investigation is the result of an agreement between NASA and IM scientists. U.S. and Italian scientists will share the analysis of the data equally between them.
"Bio-fuels are fuels whose composition varies according to the type of initial biomass, the seasonal conditions or the production process used," said Patrizio Massoli, FLEX-ICE-GA principal investigator at CNR. "Then it is really difficult to define a single behavior. Scientifically it makes sense to study the 'surrogates' that well describe the combustion properties of a bio-fuel."
FLEX-ICE-GA will use mixed fuels: one 50–50 of n-heptane/ethanol and the other 50–50 n-hexanol/n-decane. During each test run, the investigation will burn a single droplet of these surrogate bio-fuels in a calm microgravity environment. The research will lay the ground work for future studies by providing benchmark data that will help validate biofuel combustion models.
"A good first step to understanding true biologically derived fuels, or bio-fuels, is to simulate them first using mixtures of very simple and well-understood fuels," said Daniel Dietrich, FLEX-ICE-GA project scientist at Glenn. "These surrogate fuels are designed to behave very much like the target bio-fuel. And by using well-understood component fuels, we can learn a lot about the nature of the bio-fuel and how it would interact in real terrestrial engines and motors."
The FLEX-ICE-GA experiments use the same hardware installed in the U.S. Destiny module that was used for the Flame Extinguishing Experiment (FLEX) investigation conducted aboard the space station from 2009 to 2011. That investigation, like FLEX-ICE-GA, used Glenn's Multi-User Droplet Combustion Apparatus in the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR).
About 40 FLEX-ICE-GA experiments will take place during Parmitano's six-month stay on the space station. Although he'll be busy assisting with multiple science investigations, space walks and the daily routine of living in orbit, Parmitano believes sharing his experience is an important part of his job. He is maintaining Facebook, Google+ and Twitter sites to keep people informed about his work in space.
"One thing that I want to do is to make people realize that astronauts in general are very normal people," Parmitano said in a pre-flight interview. "We are very normal people with a fantastic privilege and opportunity to do something that is extraordinary. And you don't have to become an astronaut to fulfill your dreams. Whether you are a scientist, whether you are an astronaut, a pilot or in the administration or a doctor, we all really work towards the future. We are really paving the road for future, for the good of all humankind."