NASA’s Cryogenics Test Lab Shares Expertise

When companies around the world want to understand the energy efficiency of a particular system or material, they often call on Kennedy Space Center’s Cryogenics Test Laboratory (CSA CSM). For the past 20 years, the lab has worked with industry partners to not only test materials but to help establish international standards for such tests. Breakthroughs gained through such partnerships can be applied to the space program and vice versa, and are important because fire, corrosion and cryogenic spills are hazards that can jeopardize all sorts of projects, from rocket launches to LNG vessels.

Cryogenic materials must perform at very low temperatures—in many applications, only a few degrees above absolute zero (-273°C). The requirement creates unique challenges and hazards that require particular attention to ensure safe and successful operation. CSA President James Fesmire is a senior principal investigator for NASA and co-founder of the “Cryo Test Lab” at Kennedy. His team regularly consults and conducts testing with companies and organizations worldwide, including recent projects in Japan, South Korea, Germany and France. “It’s a testament that we are quite popular around the world,” Fesmire says.

A current customer is Technip, a Paris-based company that contacted NASA for help insulating and protecting more than a quarter-mile length of carbon steel equipment and decking on Shell Prelude, a floating LNG vessel and the largest floating object built by humans.

Fesmire’s team had to establish new standardized tests for three different spill states (liquid soak, liquid jet and cold vapor) to address Technip’s unique insulation requirements. The test lab was assisted by Vencore, NASA’s engineering service contractor through the Contractor 3rd Party Work (C3PW) program. Both Fesmire and Vencore’s Dr. Barry Meneghelli are official delegates with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) committee on LNG installations and equipment.

Aside from helping companies like Technip with specific needs, the NASA and Vencore partnership helps establish industry standards for the cryogenic insulation world. “Our work enabled the writing of the books on cryogenic insulation Mars standards,” Fesmire says, describing two new ASTM International publications based on 20 years’ worth of testing of hundreds of materials. ASTM International is one of the world’s foremost organizations dedicated to developing and establishing voluntary consensus standards.

Members of Kennedy Space Center's Cryo Test Lab team set up the cold vapor test in which a newly developed nozzle created a wall of mist against a test panel loaded with sensors. Image: NASA

Members of Kennedy Space Center's Cryo Test Lab team set up the cold vapor test in which a newly developed nozzle created a wall of mist against a test panel loaded with sensors. Image: NASA

The process of creating standards takes time. In September 2016, for example, Kennedy hosted the cold vapor test. Observers from England, France and Japan descended upon the spaceport for a week to observe the testing protocols Fesmire and his team put in place. While designing and planning the cold vapor tests, Kennedy’s cryo team had to develop a new nozzle that could create a wall of mist. “The nozzle we used didn’t exist when we started a year ago,” Fesmire says. “We had to invent our own nozzle design.”

In October, Dr. Meneghelli took the first results of the cold vapor test and proposed test protocols to an ISO meeting in Dubai. The next ISO committee meeting will be hosted by NASA and Vencore at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2017, during which the new test standard will be drafted.

Another benefit of NASA’s work is the possibility of spinoff into the public sector. The nozzle technology created for the test is now under review and could be used not only for cryo spill protection but also by firefighters across the country.

And next up is a research project for the Department of Energy that could benefit the space program. The project, also through the C3PW program, involves the development of cryogenic tanks for automotive applications. “We are innovating a highly-integrated thermal insulation system for hydrogen storage for fuel cells in future vehicles,” Fesmire says.

For these hydrogen-powered cars, the tanks need to have a vacuum jacket that can ensure the vehicle’s performance for years. The same applies to spacecraft that require insulation materials to ensure the keeping of the cryogenic propellants for extended periods of time.

“Being engaged with the world is central to innovation in NASA,” Fesmire says. “Building a technical base of expertise among people in academia, institutions, government labs and especially manufacturing companies and machine shops is the type of partnering premise that we’ve built our lab upon.”