Elizabeth Barrios, chemical engineering senior, discusses her NASA Academy research

By Elizabeth Barrios

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to take part in the NASA Academy program at Marshall Space Flight Center. Overall, the experience was amazing! I made contacts from various departments within NASA as well as other space companies ranging from Teledyne Brown Engineering to SpaceX that I know will help me in my future career. The business trips to Florida and California were definitely some of the most memorable experiences. I loved being able to see the last launch of a space shuttle and being able to tour KSC, JPL, Scaled Composites, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance. I also love the fact that I now have really good, probably life-long, friends from across the country. This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life and something that I will never forget.

My research project had me working in an area known as In-Situ Resource Utilization – utilizing materials already present in space to fabricate mission materials while in space as opposed to launching those materials directly from Earth. The team that I was privileged to work with concentrates on extracting the oxygen and metals from various extraterrestrial regoliths. Their newest method utilizes ionic liquids as a solvent and electrolyte to perform first a solubilization of the regolith followed by electrolysis of the water produced. My team has been quite successful in demonstrating this process in the laboratory setting using lunar stimulant JSC-1 and an actual asteroid sample. However, the next step in their project is to develop a system that is capable of operating in the low-gravity environment of space.

My research this summer focused on identifying ways that the oxygen extraction process would be affected by the reduced gravity environment. Once the issues were identified, solutions had to be found. I concentrated on the issue of not being able to distill off the water vapor product produced during the solubilization step. In space, there is an absence of buoyancy and therefore, distillation is simply not possible. I discovered a method known as pervaporation which used a selective membrane and a pressure differential to separate a desired material from a mixture. I designed a testing apparatus and performed a series of tests on the sulfonated Teflon membrane and 30% aqueous ionic liquids that were chosen for my studies. I was able to successfully prove that pervaporation has a high potential at being suitable for this process in a low-gravity environment and was able to offer a possible implementation design for further studies.

This internship has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career thus far! I am so proud of the work that I have produced and can’t wait to do more research with NASA!