With technology, a lot can go (and go) not the way we would like. Dr. Terry Rolin, an electronic systems malfunction analyst at the Marshall Space Flight Center, knows this firsthand.
His job is to find solutions to problems, and if he cannot find them, then he begins to invent. When Rolin and his team were instructed to find out what caused the failure of a large battery system in 2011, it made them think about the fundamental question – can we develop a better power source?
Based on the team’s experience in materials science, Rolin and his team set to work. They began to solve the problem from scratch, examining the ideal characteristics of the power source and trying to find materials that would meet these criteria better than traditional ones.
“We started working with solid materials to get away from liquids and gels and avoid toxic materials,” Rollin explains. And, following some ultramodern developments using nanomaterials, he says that “we managed to invent a new device, which we call an ultracapacitor.”
This new NASA ultracapacitor is made up of solid material designed to store energy, and is safer than batteries made from toxic liquids and gels. During testing, he showed amazing sensitivity to humidity.
Rolin’s new invention is a representative of a new class of power supplies, representing a kind of hybrid between supercapacitors and batteries. In particular, it combines high capacity (ability to store charge) with “discharge characteristics inherent to batteries”, i.e. provides constant power over time. Being made of a semiconductor material, it is also more resistant to adverse conditions, such as temperature changes in the room, and safer to manufacture and operate than traditional battery systems.
The accidental creation of a semiconductor humidity sensor surprised NASA engineers working on new energy technology. Attempts to find a replacement for batteries made from toxic materials have led to the emergence of a new humidity sensor that can provide readings about the humidity level inside the refrigerator or spaceship.
Rolin and his team hope that this revolutionary material has a great future in space and commercial energy systems. At the same time, the quirk in the properties of their innovative material has opened up unexpected applications.
In the early stages of testing, Rolin noticed an interesting feature that he could not explain: “A good energy storage system should have a large capacity,” he says. “When I held the ultracapacitor in my hand and tested it, the capacity was very high. But when I put it on the table and tested it again, it dropped sharply. “
Initially, engineers believed that the capacity is influenced by the heat of Rolin’s body, so they tested in a thermal chamber. Capacity did not change.
“Soon, we realized that it was the moisture contained in the exhaled air that caused these big changes,” Rolin explains. “We tested it in a humidity chamber, and, of course, we saw a huge response from the tank to changes in humidity levels.”
The new Rolin ultracapacitor turned out to be a semiconductor moisture-sensitive element.
Humidity sensors measure the amount of moisture in the air by detecting changes that affect electric currents or temperature. The NASA ultracapacitor is extremely sensitive to changing conditions, detecting the slightest shifts. In addition, he quickly recovered, as he easily dumped the collected surface moisture.
To measure the reaction rate, the team tested its performance against commercial humidity sensors and found that it was faster. According to Rolin, after all the moisture tests they could have carried out at the plant, they needed a partner in the industry to conduct more extensive checks.
He sought help from the Technology Transfer Office in Marshall. The office announced this technology, and Roscid Technologies Inc., based in Woburn, Massachusetts, contacted NASA. The company supplies NASA with high-quality analytical equipment for testing high-purity gas measurements. Roscid was offered to test the new technology because the staff was intrigued. Joint work on the humidity sensor made it possible to explore a new technology, which, when first examined, looked promising.
“We asked Terry to send some samples,” explains Ken Murray, vice president of new business development. “Initially, we came up with the idea to see how durable the material is and how well it will work in various conditions.”
The tests are carried out in “rather unpleasant environments”, including “terrible chemicals, sudden changes in temperature and with a large number of work cycles.” The company has confirmed that the newly created NASA material, in addition to its main advantages, has added value.
The size of the sensitive surface needed to capture changes in humidity and signal output depends on a number of factors: the type of sensitive material, the environment and the application. Most sensors use polymer or ceramic materials, which may have low sensitivity, so they should be large enough.
The problem that all existing sensors may encounter is damage from the moisture they measure. Over time, the sensors absorb liquid, which leads to erosion of the sensitive material. This leads to a distortion of the readings or to a complete stop of the sensor. In this regard, continuous monitoring is necessary to ensure data accuracy and replace damaged blocks. This means that most sensors are short-lived, which increases the cost of maintaining the system.
Moisture is a problem for production in many industries, including pharmaceuticals, so controlling moisture levels is critical. If the sensor fails or calibration fails, this can result in significant loss. NASA’s new semiconductor humidity sensor could revolutionize the industry with more robust hardware.
Murray found that to obtain consistent and accurate readings, a small amount of new NASA material, about a hundredth of an inch, is enough. To transform this signal into meaningful data, Roscid has developed and improved electronic components compatible with the new material.
“As we delved deeper into the sensor, we wanted to take it to a new level,” says Murray. “Each time we noted that we learned something new, and Terry slightly tweaked the technology. The sensor has become a little more reliable for the applications we are testing. ”
Roscid signed two evaluation licenses with Marshall to go beyond NASA testing requirements. When Murray turned to potential new clients with samples, he said that “the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.” So the company signed a non-exclusive license and in 2019 began marketing its CBNS215 humidity sensor model.
Such sensors are necessary in environments where humidity must be controlled, whether to maintain certain conditions or to prevent moisture from entering the product. In addition to routine maintenance and sensor replacement, humidity control systems face downtimes requiring expensive calibration procedures. Roscid believes NASA sensors will significantly reduce this load. Murray cites the pharmaceutical industry as an example.
“After processing each batch of drugs, pharmaceutical companies have to check the sensors for calibration standards to make sure they are not deviating,” he says. “If any device fails, they will have to withdraw and remake the last batch, or quarantine it.”
Reliable sensors will allow companies to increase calibration cycles, which will have a significant impact on the final result.
Sensors may deviate or fail after one “moisture event”. Condensation on the sensor can be either small or significant, for example, when the sensor is immersed in any liquid. As new material leaks moisture, these problems can be a thing of the past.
“NASA’s sensitive material is a semiconductor design, there’s no need to flush anything,” Murray explains.
This reliability is an essential feature for high humidity and low temperature applications such as cooling. As the refrigerator door constantly opens and closes, humidity and temperature are constantly changing. Maintaining ideal conditions without constant monitoring is extremely difficult.
A manufacturer of high-quality household refrigerators tests the CBNS215 sensor in a vegetable tray. The goal is to maintain air humidity at 95 percent at 37 ° F. So far, the company has not found a single sensor that would steadily maintain humidity for a long time.
“There is a test that these guys carry out, and it’s quite complicated,” says Rolin. “Roscid conducted a similar test on their own, and, according to them, only our sensor managed to pass it successfully. This is pretty cool. ”
Rolin would like to find a solution to an important problem that would allow consumers and gas companies to save millions of dollars. This problem is water entering gasoline.
Murray believes the new sensor may help. “Monitoring the humidity level in underground gasoline storage tanks can reduce the chance of water getting into your car,” he explains. Sensors can also be installed in the fuel tanks of cars, warning drivers about the ingress of moisture into the fuel supply system.
Oil and gas companies have also shown interest in the CBNS215. They need technology that works at low dew points and temperatures down to -94 ° F. The alumina-based sensors currently in use have serious limitations – long response times and long drying times. It may take several days or weeks before the system starts to work after exposure to moisture. Murray has partnered with industry to make sure the NASA sensor will be a real replacement.
Cold sterilization, refrigerated transport containers and trucks, as well as airlines, are just some examples of industries interested in discussing new sensor technology and discussing it with Roscid.
“It’s especially useful for military aircraft to have a humidity sensor that accurately reads the level of the dew point in the atmosphere through which the aircraft flies,” explains Murray. “This task is being studied.”
This copy of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is undergoing tests of the environmental control and life support system for the crew of the spacecraft. Life support systems in space are complex and delicate. The innovative solid-state moisture-sensitive material developed by NASA can help detect small leaks in these systems, since it is sensitive to the smallest changes in the air, which allows astronauts to carry out the necessary repairs and prevent any serious problems.
These diverse applications introduce NASA technology to new industries, and Murray pays tribute to the Space Agency.
“If NASA says it works, then it works,” he says. “NASA is such a great partner because they are truly committed not only to their work, but also to the commercialization process.”
Rolin and his team are looking for space applications to benefit from this unexpected discovery.
“Now that we know that our new material is sensitive to humidity and that it seems to tolerate temperature spikes, we can safely place it in one of our test benches,” he explains. “If it performs well, then NASA will have a sensor that is made possible through a partnership with Roscid.”
The sensor is planned to be sent into space during an experimental flight to the ISS associated with materials. A successful flight will prove that the new material can be used in future flights.
Noting that NASA uses humidity sensors on the space station for environmental monitoring and life support systems, Rolin introduced a miniature sensor that can help monitor everything from stopping astronauts breathing during sleep, to detecting dangerous leaks in the system early.
As for the use of ultracapacitors, the preliminary results are promising, and there are still many tests ahead.
“It may be possible to create a combined system that will accumulate energy, and also serve as a humidity sensor in rockets and other spacecraft,” says Rolin.
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