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Lighting A Flame In Space Could Help Fuels Burn More Cleanly On Earth

A flame lit on the International Space Station.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Astronaut Christina Koch is helping researchers understand soot formation by lighting flames in space. In low gravity, flames form a sphere instead of moving straight up as they do on Earth.

NASA scientists are lighting flames on the International Space Station to help a Washington University engineer learn how soot forms from fire.

The NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio is conducting the flame experiments remotely. The space agency is sending data to researchers who are exploring ways to eliminate soot so that fuel can be burned more cleanly.

Scientists have debated how much the Earth’s gravity plays a role when fire creates soot, Washington University environmental engineering professor Richard Axelbaum said. Lighting flames in a location with little gravity could test their theories and help improve air quality on earth.

“If we’re trying to develop new approaches to trying to control pollutants, by better understanding the basic processes, we’ll be able to propose different approaches to doing that," Axelbaum said. 

The first phase of the six-month experiment will focus on gaining a basic understanding of how fire forms soot. The second will look at whether strong flames can be created without forming soot. The researchers at the NASA Glenn Center are lighting flames that are between one to four inches.

Astronaut Christina Koch stands with equipment on the International Space Station that includes the setup used to help light flames for an experiment coordinated with a Washington University engineer.
Credit NASA
Astronaut Christina Koch helped researchers set up the apparatus used to light flames and send scientists data that could inform them how soot forms.

While soot can be harmful to human health, it’s also useful as a material for some industries. The material carbon black, which results from the incomplete combustion of petroleum, is used to make tires. Knowing how flames create soot could also help ongoing research on carbon storage, Axelbaum said.

Flames behave differently when there’s a low presence of gravity. On earth, the flames shoot straight up. In space, they form a sphere. Fires in space would also not spread as easily as they do on earth. When there's gravity, hot air rises, allowing cooler air to come in and fuel the combustion. In an environment that lacks gravity, there's less fresh air to fuel the flame, Axelbaum said. 

“Since it’s an environment that’s so different from what we’re used to, then our preconceived notions of what will happen are just off,” Axelbaum said. “What we’ve found already with these experiments [is] that there’s new phenomenon that we’re witnessing. The discovery of new knowledge is always important, and you don’t know where it’s going to go, but you have to be there to find out.”

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.