NASA SBIR 2008 Solicitation


PROPOSAL NUMBER: 08-2 X3.02-9483
SUBTOPIC TITLE: Oxygen Production from Lunar Regolith
PROPOSAL TITLE: Microchannel Methanation Reactors Using Nanofabricated Catalysts

SMALL BUSINESS CONCERN (Firm Name, Mail Address, City/State/Zip, Phone)
Makel Engineering, Inc.
1585 Marauder Street
Chico, CA 95973 - 9064
(512) 589-0718

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR/PROJECT MANAGER (Name, E-mail, Mail Address, City/State/Zip, Phone)
Susana Carranza
1585 Marauder Street
Chico, CA 95973 - 9064
(512) 512-0718

Expected Technology Readiness Level (TRL) upon completion of contract: 4

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT (Limit 2000 characters, approximately 200 words)
Makel Engineering, Inc. (MEI) and the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) propose to develop and demonstrate a microchannel methanation reactor based on nanofabricated catalysts. Our innovative approach of combining microchannel reactor technology with nanofabricated catalysts provides the synergy between these two emerging technologies with the potential to enhance reaction efficiency by orders of magnitude. This improvement in efficiency leads to more compact and lower mass reactor systems. Thermal and mass diffusion distances in microchannel reactors range from tens to hundreds of microns versus tens to hundreds of millimeters in conventional reactors. Slow heat and mass transfer dominate the operation of conventional reactor designs, thus limiting reaction kinetics. As is well known, catalytic efficiency increases with decreasing catalyst particle size (reflecting higher surface area per unit mass) and chemical reactivity frequently is enhanced at the nanoscale. By virtue of their nanoscale dimensions, nanotubes and nanorods geometrically restrict the catalyst particle size that can be supported upon the tube walls. By confining catalyst particles to sizes smaller than the CNT diameter, a more uniform catalyst particle size distribution may be maintained. The high dispersion provided by the vast surface area of the nanoscale material serves to retain the integrity of the catalyst by reducing sintering or coalescence. To maximize catalyst exposure, our design includes hierarchical support structures, consisting of a 3-d network of open pores within the microreactor structure, and finally the nanofabricated support. Additional advantages of the hierarchical catalyst support structure include minimal pressure drop (while providing superior catalyst contact) without the need to resort to fluidized bed configurations.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words)
The primary target application of this technology is the inclusion of our prototype methanation reactor in the demonstration of an integrated carbothermal reduction system for the production of oxygen from lunar regolith. The development of highly efficient microchannel reactors will be applicable to multiple ISRU programs. As this technology can be applied to a wide range of processes, the applications are numerous. NASA is currently pursuing technologies to convert plastics and other crew solid waste to carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and/or water (per NASA SBIR 2009 Phase I solicitation). Our proposed microreactor could be used to subsequently convert these carbon oxides to methane as a fuel. Propellants can be produced from carbon dioxide (Mars atmosphere). Methane reformation can be used to produce hydrogen onboard fuel cell power rovers, enabling many mobility concepts. Ethylene can be produced from methane. Ethylene is a feedstock for production of polyethylene and ethanol. Methane reformation can produce hydrogen on board rovers to feed fuel cell power systems. Polyethylene can be used in the construction of habitats, tools, and replacement parts. Ethanol can be used as a nutrient for Astrobiology experiments, as well as a precursor for the production of nutrients (e.g. sugars) for human crew.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words)
Makel Engineering has strong interest in the development and utilization of renewable fuels. Makel Engineering has ongoing research and field test demonstration activities in the utilization of biogas (e.g., dairy, landfill) for stationary power generation, and is currently partnering with the California Energy Commission and a major California utility (Sacramento Municipal Utility District – SMUD). In most cases, clean up of the biogas stream is required. To date, the commercially available method is the use of a sorbent, like activated carbon filters, which eventually saturate and need to be disposed. If microreactor-based systems are successfully developed, catalytic clean-up will become cost-effective, and would eliminate the need to dispose of saturated filters. Processes of interest include desulfurization, removal of siloxane, etc. There is also growing interest in the production of biofuels from a variety of sources. Commercially, biodiesel is produced utilizing homogeneous catalysts. However, there is growing interest and research in the utilization of heterogeneous catalysts to simplify the production process and enable distributed production as smaller scales. Our proposed hierarchical support design is well suited for liquid biofuel production, as it provides excellent catalyst exposure, and precludes the need of separation of the catalyst from the product stream.

NASA's technology taxonomy has been developed by the SBIR-STTR program to disseminate awareness of proposed and awarded R/R&D in the agency. It is a listing of over 100 technologies, sorted into broad categories, of interest to NASA.

In-situ Resource Utilization

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