Researchers have developed an origami-style foldable plastic fuel tank. It not only saves space in space missions but also does not crack at ultra-low temperatures.
Led by graduate student Kjell Vestra and Jake Leachman, assistant professor at the School of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, the researchers published their work in the journal Cryogenics.
Fuel management is an important limiting factor in space travel. The large volume of cargo complicates the launch of small satellites into orbit and the duration of long missions. At the dawn of the US space program in the 1960s and 1970s, researchers tried to develop round balloons to store and pump liquid hydrogen fuel. They have failed. Each bubble burst or leaked when attempted to compress at the shallow temperatures required for liquid fuels.
The researchers abandoned this attempt and instead began relying on less ideal fuel control devices. Modern systems use metal plates and the principle of surface tension to control liquid fuel, but the systems are slow and allow only small amounts of fuel to flow out.
Kjel Vestra decided to try using the origami structure to solve the problem.
Having never tried origami before, it took a graduate student a couple of tries and hours of YouTube tutorial video to figure out how to fold bellows. Their scientist used to create a prototype of a fuel tank. He tested how the structure would behave in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of about 77 degrees Kelvin (–196°C).
The researchers found that the balloon can be compressed at least 100 times without bursting or leaking in cold conditions.
Researchers are now doing more rigorous testing. They are planning new tests using liquid hydrogen, evaluating how well they can store and remove fuel, and compare the model with existing systems. Vestra recently received a NASA Fellowship to continue the project.