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Saturday, July 26, 2014

URI engineering student helping NASA get to Mars

Internship has Westerly resident working on new fuel cell

KINGSTON, R.I. –Patrick Brown always wanted to be an astronaut. He may never make it to space, but the technology he’s helping to develop just may help humans reach Mars.

The University of Rhode Island chemical engineering student from Westerly is interning at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. He is part of a team developing a new solid oxide fuel cell system that is lighter and more robust than anything in existence. 

The system takes methane – which can be produced from natural resources on Mars – and converts it to hydrogen, which can power fuel cells that generate electricity. For it to work, the team must understand exactly how to extract hydrogen from methane and how to do it on a planet never closer than 34 million miles away.

“Sure, a chemist could explain how these reactions work,” Brown said. “But the engineering side tells you how these things fit into a practical piece of technology you can bring into space.”

For Brown and the research team, weight is the most important factor. It costs NASA about $10,000 to place a single pound of material into space. That’s why hefty and limited power batteries are not an option for a Mars trip.

After weight comes sustainability and reliability. NASA cannot practically resupply a spacecraft hurtling toward Mars. Using methane will eliminate the need for resupply trips. Meanwhile, a complex series of tests and prototypes will ensure the fuel cell and its attached systems can withstand the extreme temperatures and forces of space.

“I’ve learned it’s amazing how much work goes into making something that might not seem that complex,” Brown said. “You can’t just call AAA for a tow. It comes down to intensive testing and development to make sure it’s going to work.”

Brown’s team is vying to have its fuel cell on a Mars rover scheduled to be launched around 2020 and land on the Red Planet. He said that if the team is selected, the fuel cell system will be loaded on the rover – sister to the Mars Curiosity – and receive the ultimate test of its abilities.

Even if the fuel cell never reaches Mars, Brown said the paid internship has been a field day for a space buff like him. In the office next door, researchers work on warp speed – how to travel faster than the speed of light. On the same campus, mission control keeps watch over the International Space Station.

Brown brought a broad-based chemical engineering background to his internship – even if it did take him a while to settle on an academic career.

After high school Brown, now 27, enrolled in the Air Force Academy, decided it wasn’t for him, and entered Colgate University. He ultimately transferred to the University of Rhode Island, where he expects to graduate in December.

Brown says he’s happy with his decision to attend URI and pleased it provided a foundation for him to intern at NASA, a place he hopes to work one day.

“It’s the mystery of the unknown,” Brown said of his attraction to space. “We occupy the smallest piece of the physical universe and we’ve only been around the shortest time. The bulk of existence does not involve human beings.”

Photo submitted by Patrick Brown