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Gravity’s grip on heat and fire to be studied in space

Flame with tear-drop shape on Earth and round shape in microgravity

NSF and CASIS are sending three engineering experiments into microgravity.

August 9, 2017

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $900,000 for fundamental research in combustion and thermal transport to be performed on the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory for the benefit of life on Earth.

The awards are made jointly with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which will manage operations for the experiments.

"NSF is thrilled to offer researchers the chance to conduct studies in the microgravity environment onboard the ISS National Laboratory," says Dawn Tilbury, NSF assistant director for engineering. "With these experiments in space, NSF grantees will help us understand fundamental aspects of heat and flame that cannot be isolated on Earth and that will help protect and improve the lives of all Americans."

The behavior of heat and flame are affected by fluid motion, chemistry, pressure, thermodynamics — and gravity.

"We can envision one of gravity's effects on heat and flame, known as buoyancy, by thinking of a candle's flame," explains Song-Charng Kong, one of the NSF program directors overseeing the joint projects. "If you burn a candle on Earth, the flame has a tear-drop shape and its products rise because of buoyancy. In space, flame has a spherical shape and its products spread in all directions."

Engineers estimate the behavior of heat and flame when creating models of, for example, combustion for automotive and airplane engines, the spread of fire in wildlands and confined spaces, or liquid cooling of supercomputers and high-power electronics.

And if the models do not match real-life performance, the discrepancies arising from buoyancy or other gravity-related phenomena can be impossible to pin down.  

"We have a lot to learn about gravity’s effects on buoyancy, convection, hydrostatic pressure and other processes involved in combustion and heat transfer," says José Lage, the second NSF program director involved. "These NSF-funded experiments on the ISS will help us separate and understand the effects of gravity on the behavior of several important thermal transport processes."

The findings from the new NSF fundamental research onboard the ISS promise advances in fire protection, electronics, supercomputers, combustion engines, biomedical technologies and many other areas.

Research begins during fall 2017 on the following three-year, collaborative projects: 

  • Flame spread in confined spaces — study of the interactions between flame and surrounding walls, led by Ya-Ting Liao of Case Western Reserve University and Paul Ferkul of the Universities Space Research Association (1740478)
  • Spherical cool diffusion flames burning gaseous fuels, led by Peter Sunderland of the University of Maryland (1740490), Richard Axelbaum of Washington University (1740471) and Forman Williams of UC San Diego (1740499)
  • Thermally activated directional mobility of vapor bubbles in microgravity using microstructured surfaces, led by Sushil Bhavnani of Auburn University (1740515) and Vinod Narayanan of UC Davis (1740506)  

The NSF–CASIS awards are funded through the combustion and fire systems program and the thermal transport processes program of the NSF Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET) in the Directorate for Engineering. CBET supports discoveries in chemical and biochemical systems; environmental engineering and sustainability; bioengineering and engineering healthcare; and fundamental transport, thermal and fluid phenomena.

- NSF - 


Media Contacts
Sarah Bates, NSF, (703) 292-7738,
Patrick O'Neill, CASIS, (321) 480-1054,

Program Contacts
Song-Charng Kong, NSF CBET, (703) 292-8695,
Jose Lagé, NSF CBET, (703) 292-4997,
Jonathan Volk, CASIS,

Related Websites
CASIS news release:
NSF/CASIS Collaboration on Combustion and Thermal Transport Processes Research on the International Space Station to Benefit Life on Earth (NSF 17-517):
Learning from fluids, in space (NSF announcement, September 30, 2016):

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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