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News Release

Undergraduates Get to Ignite Fire in Space for Science

The UC San Diego Microgravity team poses in front of the special NASA plane they used for their experiments on biofuels in space.

San Diego, Calif., Nov. 5, 2013 -- Four UC San Diego undergraduates boarded a special NASA plane and soared in microgravity over the Gulf of Mexico this summer. Their goal: understanding how biofuels behave in space.

“The best way to describe the feeling was like being on a roller coaster. In the first second before the microgravity occurs, it feels like you’re at the peak of the roller coaster, and just as the zero gravity takes effect, you’re suddenly free from the floor,” said Sam Avery, a fourth-year aerospace engineering major. “It was a great experience.”

Avery and three fellow students were there because the UCSD Microgravity team -- a student organization captained by Avery – won a NASA competition for university students. The eight-student organization proposed an experiment to test the combustion rates of biofuels in zero-gravity. The group was one of seven universities that were awarded a zero-gravity trip -- commercially worth $5,000 per person.

The project, which Avery said could help in the design of more efficient biofuel engines, gained national attention. Space.com, a website that reports on space and related topics, sent a journalist to document the team’s progress leading up to the flight. The team was also the center of a KPBS segment done in July.

Avery, a fourth-year aerospace major, said the experiment was inspired by the research of UC San Diego aerospace professor Forman Williams, best known for his work in combustion theory.

“I was looking around trying to find something that we could do for a microgravity experiment,” Avery said. “I eventually came across the research of Dr. Williams, which he did back in the 1990s. I was able to talk to him, and he said that biofuels haven’t been studied in a droplet fuel combustion experiment, so we ran with that.”

Between December and July, with Williams’ help, the team worked to create a device that would allow them to ignite a small droplet of biofuel safely within the modified Boeing 727 that would make the zero-gravity trip.

To fulfill the community service component of the NASA competition, the group also volunteered at Mission Bay High School in San Diego, where they built water rockets and taught local students about NASA and the basics of their experiment.

With UC San Diego scholarship money and funds from the Jacobs School of Engineering, the team was able to construct a triple-walled container that housed two syringes which released a droplet of biofuel that was ignited when suspended in microgravity. Two cameras mounted in the container would record the reaction.

Nico Montoya, a third-year mechanical engineering student in charge of publicity for the project, said the team was working right up against the deadline to complete the project in time.

“In the days leading up to the flight, we were working every day until 2 or 3 in the morning and then waking up at 6 or 7 in Houston to finish in time for the flight,” Montoya said.

Three members from the student organization -- Jack Goodwin, Daneesha Kenyon and Avery -- went up in the microgravity aircraft that would head out over the Gulf of Mexico and circle back to Ellington Field in Houston.

Due to wind and rain, the team -- which was supposed to take two microgravity flights to test their experiment -- was only given one. But Montoya, one of the members left on the ground, said NASA would give priority to the microgravity team if they were to apply again next year with a similar experiment.

Currently, the group -- now a six-person team -- is in the process of revamping their proposal.

Avery said the team will make limited changes to their original project this time around, but some potential modifications would include testing additional biofuels and adjusting the way the fuel is ignited in the container.

“We know we have a working experiment right now, but this time, instead of just testing one biofuel, because we initially over-accommodated in the original design, we could test four biofuels,” Avery said. “We might also consider getting rid of the spark to ignite the fuel, and coming up with something else instead.”

Proposals for the microgravity university competition are due by Nov. 6. Winners will be announced Dec. 18.

Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering