Idea to clean dust from spacesuits receives NASA support

An astronaut in a space suit on the moon.
A team of WSU students received an approximately $130,000 grant from NASA for a project to wash lunar dust out of spacesuits.

Last year as a freshman, Ian Wells worked on cleaning protocols in Professor Jake Leachman’s Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Lab – working on procedures to assure the lab stayed tidy and safe.

This year, he and a team of WSU students received an approximately $130,000 grant, one of seven awarded nationwide through NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge for a project to wash lunar dust out of spacesuits.

For Wells and his fellow students, getting from cleaning protocols in the lab to lunar space suits is a story of creativity, hard work, and more than a bit of serendipity.

“Ian had the right interest and was ready to go with the right project to make it happen,” said Leachman.

Cleaning up lunar dust might sound like a minor issue compared to the many other technical issues that astronauts have to deal with. But, as anyone in the Pacific Northwest who lived through the explosion of Mount St. Helens knows, lunar dust, which is similar to volcanic ash, gets everywhere. It is abrasive and damages engines and electronics. It can cause health problems, described as ‘lunar hay fever,’ when people inhale it. Scientists have not found a good way to easily clean off items that get dusty in space.

For the WSU team, the journey to NASA started last year at Wells’ job interview in the HYPER lab. At the interview, Wells mentioned that he liked photography, and Leachman asked if he knew about Schlieren photography, a process that is used to photograph fluids or gasses at varying densities. He didn’t.

The cryogenic wash (liquid nitrogen) lifting dust simulant (Mt. St. Helens Ash) from a surface.

Last summer, bored during the pandemic and stuck at home in Boise, Wells decided to make a Schlieren camera. The camera he built worked well enough that Leachman asked him to try it out in the HYPER lab, taking images of liquid nitrogen picking up dust.

Leachman is not the first to notice that dropping a little liquid nitrogen on the lab floor makes for quick clean up due to a phenomenon called the Leidenfrost Effect. As is the case when one pours water on a hot frying pan, pouring liquid nitrogen onto a hot floor makes droplets skitter across the room, carrying dust particles and floating on boiling vapor.

With camera in hand and while taking pictures of dust cleaning, the researchers learned of the NASA challenge.

“It was a perfect opportunity,” said Wells, who has long dreamed of working for NASA. “We pivoted away from taking pictures of liquid nitrogen to harnessing the effect to clean up dust.”

To test whether the liquid nitrogen could work to clean up space suits, the researchers needed lunar dust, which is understandably difficult to get.

Once again, luck was on their side. Mt. St. Helens volcanic ash has been shown to be similar in composition and particle shape to moon dust. It so happens that some WSU researchers 40 years ago collected barrels of pure ash off rooftops when the mountain blew. A recent news story on their long-ago efforts led the students to the ash they needed — sitting in a barn 12 miles from Pullman.

With the ash, they were able to test their idea and prove their concept, showing that the liquid nitrogen easily washes off fabrics covered in the dusty material. “Their concept is really original,” said Leachman. “There is no literature about it being effective for dust removal and there was not anything alluding to it in the request for proposals.”

The students are now funded to further develop and test their technology in a simulated lunar environment and will present their results to a NASA panel in November.

In addition to Wells, team members on the project include Camden Butikofer, Nathaniel Swets, and Lauren Reising, mechanical engineering undergraduates; John Bussey, an undergraduate in materials science and chemical engineering; and graduate students Stasia Kulsa and Gregory Wallace. In addition to Leachman, the team is advised by Professors John McCloy and Konstantin Matveev in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

“I’m very grateful for our wonderful team who put in a lot of effort to make this happen,” said Wells. “And, I’m thankful to the HYPER lab and WSU’s engineering program. Without all their support, this project definitely wouldn’t happen.”

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