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Students head to Houston to test micropump for NASA

The team of students heading to NASA in their lab with Professor Luis Colón. From left: Ivonne Ferrer, Luis Colón, Erika Salem, Nathan Guterry, Sandra Czarnecki, Jimmy Lam and Thomas Prato.


Published July 3, 2013

“Not many people can say their work flew on a NASA plane.”
Erika Salem, mechanical engineering student

NASA is welcoming six students from UB who will travel to Houston next week to test how much more effective a pump could be if it used electricity instead of mechanical parts in the low-gravity conditions of space travel.

The researchers believe that the experiments are the first to test the effectiveness of electrokinetic micropumps in microgravity.

“I’m proud that my students were selected to perform our experiments at the NASA facilities,” says Luis Colón, professor of chemistry, who supervised the micropump research for two years. “It is rewarding to see how much they have matured, and how much potential has been unleashed.”

After heading to Houston on July 11, the research team will test its pump on a plane that will fly 30 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico, providing about 18 seconds of microgravity conditions as the plane starts to nose over the top of the parabola to descend toward Earth.

The four-inch electrokinetic micropump the team designed moves liquid through a process called electro-osmosis, which involves applying a voltage across a porous disk.

Unlike the costly and heavy mechanical pumps currently employed by NASA, an electrokinetic micropump has no moving parts, which makes it simpler and lighter. Any reduction in weight on space vehicles means less money NASA has to spend on fuel to power them out of orbit.

Aside from lowering costs, the pump is compatible with a variety of liquids. It could recycle the space vehicle’s drinking water or drive ammonia solutions to fuel cells for power.

Houston is only the first step for the UB student team.

The four-inch electrokinetic micropump the team designed moves liquid through a process called electro-osmosis.

If successful, NASA may retest the pump in zero gravity at the International Space Station. And if all goes well there, NASA may decide to incorporate it into the agency’s space vehicles.

The experiments are a part of the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program at NASA’s Microgravity University. Every summer, the program invites 12 teams of students from across the nation to propose, design, assemble, fly and evaluate a reduced-gravity experiment of their choice. The teams travel to Houston to spend 10 days conducting their experiments at the Johnson Space Center.

The UB team heading to NASA includes undergraduates Erika Salem, mechanical engineering; Jimmy Lam, mechanical and aerospace engineering; Thomas Prato, chemical and biological engineering; Sandra Czarnecki, aerospace engineering; and Nathan Guterry, mechanical and aerospace engineering undergraduate; and chemistry graduate student Ivonne Ferrer.

Salem, a Syracuse native who has aspired to be an engineer like her father since she was 12 years old, has moved one step closer to fulfilling her dream through this opportunity.

“I’m excited,” says Salem. “Not many people can say their work flew on a NASA plane. This opportunity makes me want to stay involved in research and work toward my PhD.”

Salem and Guttery, the undergraduate leaders on their research team, will take a week off from internships at Sikorsky Aircraft, a military and commercial helicopter manufacturer based out of Stratford, Conn., to ready the pump for its tests on the reduced-gravity plane.

“Their achievements will serve to attract other talented students to our programs and to bring additional national recognition to UB,” says Colón.