Combined Experimental and Modeling Study of the Interactions of Acid Gas with Common Spacecraft Surfaces for Fire Safety Applications (2023)

A fire in a spacecraft poses detrimental consequences and risks mission success in addition to crew safety. This is compounded during long-duration missions when the crew has limited options to recover from a fire. A common spacecraft fire concern is the smoldering of wire insulation, typically made from Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This creates acid gases such as Hydrogen Chloride (HCl), Hydrogen Fluoride (HF) and Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN). These poisonous gases are hazardous to the crew. They also interact with common surfaces within the spacecraft more than dominant combustion products such as CO2 and H2O. This makes them more difficult to track for potential fire detection techniques, or for postfire clean-up. It is imperative to be able to understand and predict the fate of these poisonous species in a microgravity environment in order to design a safe vehicle.

HCl interacts with a number of materials inside a spacecraft. Primary among these materials is aluminum, which is abundantly used due to its strong and light weight nature. Aluminum has a natural oxide layer that protects it from corrosion but is typically treated to enhance this oxide layer. Among these treatments is a chromate conversion coating (CCC), which provides a thin enough protective oxide layer to still conduct electricity, and a traditional anodized material that has a thicker oxide layer that does not conduct electricity. Nomex is another common material found inside a spacecraft. It is a flame-resistant woven polymer that is related to nylon. This commercially available material is used for cargo storage bags and as a fire barrier.

Physics-based models were developed to predict the uptake of HCl by these materials. The ultimate objective of these models is to predict the fate of HCl within the spacecraft so that sensors can be placed in meaningful locations in future missions based on the model predictions. To support these modeling efforts, experiments were performed in a cast acrylic test cell that measured the difference between the inlet and outlet concentration of HCl after inserting a sample rod of the test material. Different uptake capacities were realized for each type of sample tested. A computational fluid dynamics model (CFD) model of the reactor was then constructed that used a one-step global reaction rate with calibratable reaction (or kinetic) constants. These constants were calibrated to match the HCl uptake on the CCC aluminum samples, and the same kinetic constants were then tested for the stock and anodized aluminum samples. Model predictions matched the experimental data for the stock aluminum, and to a much lesser extent, the anodized aluminum. The model was additionally validated at different flow rates, sample surface areas, and inlet concentrations, and showed good agreement for all stock and CCC samples.

The model did not accurately predict the HCl uptake in the anodized samples compared to the other two types of aluminum. Adjusting the kinetic constants and transport properties did little to improve the prediction. X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS) was used to determine that the oxide layer thickness of anodized aluminum is approximately 5,000 nm, compared to 250 nm for CCC and 50 nm for stock. XPS also revealed presence of chlorine further down in the aluminum oxide layer in anodized samples than CCC and stock samples after the samples were saturated with HCl, indicating that accounting for diffusion of HCl into the oxide layer is important for accurate prediction of HCl uptake onto anodized aluminum. Consequently, a multi-scale model was developed and tested. First, a single pore inside the anodized aluminum oxide layer was modeled and is referred to as the pore-scale model. In this model, HCl diffused through the pore and reacted with the aluminum oxide pore wall to create aluminum chloride. The sample was then saturated when the mass transfer resistance through the growing aluminum chloride layer became too large for the HCl to reach the aluminum oxide wall and continue the reaction. This pore-scale model was coupled to the reactor-scale model using a concentration-dependent diffusion coefficient, resulting in much more accurate predictions (approximately half the sum square error of the aforementioned reactor-scale model that produced good agreement for stock and CCC) for a variety of operating conditions.

The amount of water vapor or relative humidity (RH) in the flow during a reactor experiment was determined to influence HCl uptake. Experiments were performed to understand the interaction of gaseous HCl with aluminum surfaces in the presence of water vapor. The results show that increasing levels of RH increased the capacity of aluminum to adsorb HCl but decreased the capacity of Nomex to uptake HCl. A series of tests were performed on individual aluminum samples after they had been saturated with a fixed concentration of HCl in dry air conditions with the goal of determining how their HCl uptake capacity changes after various treatments with water relative to the original saturation tests. HCl-saturated aluminum samples subjected to a second dry air flow at the same HCl concentration as the original test had an uptake of 23.5% of the original sample with no treatment in between. Saturated aluminum samples subjected to an air flow with a RH of 90% in between tests had an uptake of 35.6% of the original. Saturated aluminum samples submerged in distilled water for 12 hours in between tests had an uptake of 82.2% of the original sample. Previously saturated aluminum tested with HCl and a 50% RH air flow resulted in similar uptake characteristics in multiple repeated tests. The experiments show the profound effect water vapor has on HCl uptake onto aluminum surfaces.

In the samples subjected to water vapor or liquid water, capillary condensation and capillary diffusion alters the transport of HCl significantly. A model was proposed that developed a relationship between RH and the coefficient of HCl diffusion in aluminum chloride. This produced an “S-shaped” curve with diffusion coefficient as a function of RH, with 45% RH represented as the point where the diffusion coefficient is halfway between no water saturation and 100% water saturation in the aluminum chloride product layer. No difference in uptake characteristics for the experiment or model were realized between 50% and 62% RH.

The results from the large-scale microgravity experiment, Saffire, are discussed as they pertain to the fate of HCl throughout a spacecraft. HCl was released, both as a standalone event, and in concurrence with the burning of a structured cloth. These events only produced a small response in the far field HCl sensor, while a PMMA burn that did not produce HCl had a significantly greater response. A ground-based large-scale facility was constructed to flow acid gas at the scale and configuration realized in the Saffire experiments. A CFD model of this duct was constructed to test kinetic parameters developed in this work at a larger scale and different geometric configuration and to predict the results of the large-scale facility. The models developed in this work were used to interpret the results of the microgravity tests and lead the discussion on what further experiments and models are needed in order to predict the fate of acid gas in a spacecraft environment.

To summarize, the major contributions of this work are as follows: the capacity to uptake HCl, with and without the presence of water vapor, was measured for a variety of real spacecraft surfaces. Several different models (single reactor-scale, multiscale, spacecraft-scale) were developed and with the aid of modeling, the rate of uptake for those surfaces was also predicted and validated. The kinetic parameters determined from the small-scale reactor experiments and models were used to predict large-scale and microgravity tests. Conclusions from this research will be used in the design of spacecraft vehicles and large-scale microgravity fire safety experiments. The models built by this work will aid designers in sensor placement and could be used to predict acid gas transport from fires in partial gravity, as would be seen in Lunar and Martian habitats.

Document ID


(Video) Firebrand shower, different phases and a new approach in modeling


Justin Niehaus

(Glenn Research Center Cleveland, Ohio, United States)

(Video) Hopefully by watching this video you’ll learn something new..

Date Acquired

March 28, 2023

Publication Date

May 12, 2023

Subject Category

Space Sciences (General)
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Meeting Information

Dissertation Defense - Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering(Columbus, OH)

Funding Number(s)

WBS: 089407.02.04.22

Distribution Limits

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