Every shuttle launch depends on cutting-edge technology, highly trained technicians, and some plain, old-fashioned tanker trucks -- 50 of them, to be exact.
The trucks haul over 300,000 pounds of hydrogen fuel 600 miles from where it is produced near New Orleans to Kennedy Space Center, a massive transportation job that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars each time the shuttle roars into orbit.
Seeking to develop new technology to produce the hydrogen much closer to the launch pad -- and in a more environmentally friendly way -- NASA is awarding a group of Florida universities $8.1 million for hydrogen research.
The goal of the 18-month program: To come up with new or improved technologies to produce, store and handle hydrogen on the ground and in space.
"If you could produce hydrogen on site at Cape Canaveral or right nearby, you could at least cut the cost in half, because the transportation is a huge part of the cost," said James Burkhart, a senior research engineer at Cleveland's NASA Glenn Research Center, the source of the grant. "We're also hoping to find better ways to store and transport hydrogen, both on the ground and in space, where it has also proved challenging to handle."
The University of Florida and the University of Central Florida are heading up the research effort, with about $5.4 million going to UCF and about $2.7 million to UF. Other participating universities include the University of South Florida, the University of West Florida and Florida State University. Engineers and scientists are involved.
Burkhart said existing industrial hydrogen production centers are not only too far away from the Cape, they also rely on technology that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Although the amount of this so-called greenhouse gas released as a result of shuttle hydrogen production pales in comparison to the amount produced by cars or power plants, NASA would like to find a cleaner alternative -- especially since it views space flight as a growth industry, Burkhart said.
There are at least 18 proposed new technologies, including processes that use solar energy, electricity and lasers to release hydrogen from water. Burkhart said the main goal of the Florida research is to test these technologies and zero in on the most promising ones.
Yogi Goswami, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of UF's Solar Energy and Energy Conversion Laboratory, is the lead UF researcher in the program. He said another goal of the research is to find better ways to transport and store hydrogen, which is difficult because it requires extremely low temperatures to be kept in liquid form.
Currently, much of the hydrogen intended to fuel the shuttle or get used in space is wasted because it "boils off" or evaporates, Burkhart said.
For example, each time NASA fuels up the shuttle, it loses 97,000 pounds of hydrogen, requiring the agency to bring in almost a third more hydrogen than the 227,000 pounds required for the main tank, Burkhart said.
Because of the high cost required to lift items into orbit, reducing or eliminating hydrogen loss is also critical in space, Goswami said.
"Understanding the handling of hydrogen at extremely low cryogenic temperatures aboard space vehicles is a key objective of this research," Goswami said.
Goswami and Burkhart noted that although the research is targeted at space, the results could well have applications on Earth. Hydrogen has long been seen as an alternative to the fossil fuels that power the majority of the world's automobiles, but the costs of producing the gas and the difficulty of storing it have long proved to be significant roadblocks.
"Hydrogen is being used now, but we're trying to find better ways to use hydrogen, because eventually you have to think that hydrogen will be part of our energy picture terrestrially," Goswami said. - By Aaron Hoover
[Contact: Yogi Goswami, James Burkhart, Aaron Hoover]