The power of studying combustion on the ISS

March 14, 2018, NASA

If you wanted to reduce the amount of pollution humans produce, where might you look?

Here? Yep.

That's exactly where scientists and researchers are looking: about 250 miles above Earth, on the International Space Station (ISS). Here, astronauts are working on a series of experiments to learn more about combustion.

Why combustion?

Dennis Stocker, project scientist for the Advanced Combustion via Microgravity Experiments, or ACME, says "Consider this. About 85 percent of the energy we use comes from combustion – the burning of some sort of ."

About 70% of the electricity we use at home and work comes from power plants that use combustion. The combustion of fuels powers the engines in many modes of transportation.

Stocker continues: "If we can learn more about the process, we might be able to find newer and less polluting ways to burn fuel."

Three series of combustion experiments taking place on the International Space Station's Combustion Integration Rack (CIR) are looking at combustion in very different ways.

The Flame Extinguishment Experiment, or FLEX, examined the burning of a single droplet of fuel in the microgravity confines of the ISS. The last of the droplet combustion experiments were conducted in September 2017.

Credit: NASA

ACME began in November 2017. ACME is composed of six major experiments, with each taking about 5 months to complete. These experiments will examine how various gasses burn without gravity affecting the flames.

The Solid Fuel Ignition and Extinction or SoFIE experiment, will explore the properties of burning solid matter.

So why study in micro gravity?

As Stocker explains: "On the ISS, you have conditions that you can't replicate on Earth.

For example, consider a candle when it's burning. The flame flickers. Why? Hot gasses from the flame rise while cooler, denser air is pulled to the bottom of the flame. This flow occurs at high speeds, resulting in turbulence and instability. That instability makes it hard to study the properties of the . But on the ISS, there's no flicker which allows us to make more precise and consistent measurements. If we have precise measurements we get closer to learning how to burn more efficiently."

More efficiency could lead to real cost savings for producing power. The research could also lead to reducing the production of soot and other pollutants.

Combustion experiments conducted in space have contributed to practical applications on Earth, especially in the field of fire safety. A new type of fire extinguisher is just one example.

And, as Stocker notes: "I think we're in for a few more surprises as a result of these microgravity experiments."

That's because, not surprisingly, Stocker knew where to look for answers to reducing the amount of global pollution: He looked up.

Explore further: FLEX-ible insight into flame behavior

More information: For more from the International Space Station, go to

Related Stories

FLEX-ible insight into flame behavior

November 30, 2011

( -- Whether free-burning or smoldering, uncontrolled fire can threaten life and destroy property. On Earth, a little water, maybe some chemicals, and the fire is smothered.

Scientists reduce harmful emissions from HPPs

January 22, 2018

A team of scientists from Siberian Federal University (SFU) and their colleagues from Novosibirsk and the Netherlands modeled the process of coal burning in HPP boilers and determined which type of fuel produced less harmful ...

Jellyfish flames on the ISS

September 11, 2014

Fire is inanimate, yet anyone staring into a flame could be excused for thinking otherwise: Fire dances and swirls. It reproduces, consumes matter, and produces waste. It adapts to its environment. It needs oxygen to survive.

Recommended for you

A new neptune-size exoplanet

December 16, 2018

The remarkable exoplanet discoveries made by the Kepler and K2 missions have enabled astronomers to begin to piece together the history of the Earth and to understand how and why it differs from its diverse exoplanetary cousins. ...

See a passing comet this Sunday

December 14, 2018

On Sunday, Dec. 16, the comet known as 46P/Wirtanen will make one of the 10 closest comet flybys of Earth in 70 years, and you may even be able to see it without a telescope.

Mars InSight lander seen in first images from space

December 14, 2018

On Nov. 26, NASA's InSight mission knew the spacecraft touched down within an 81-mile-long (130-kilometer-long) landing ellipse on Mars. Now, the team has pinpointed InSight's exact location using images from HiRISE, a powerful ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.