Fire in space: Astronauts create cool-burning flames that could lead to better car engines

The discovery of a new type of cool-burning flames could lead to cleaner, more efficient car engines.

In experiments, conducted by a team of international researchers on the International Space Station (ISS), droplets of heptane fuel were ignited in a wide range of environments, including air similar to the earth’s atmosphere as well as atmospheres diluted with nitrogen, carbon dioxide and helium.

The team, at first, believed the flames had extinguished themselves but sensors showed that the heptane was, in fact, still burning.

Forman Williams, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, San Diego, commented: “We observed something that we didn’t think could exist.”

The discovery could lead to the development of homogenous-charge compression ignition which could, for example, help improve internal combustion engines in cars. It could also lead to engines burning fuel at cooler temperatures, thus emitting fewer pollutants, while still being efficient.

The experiments are run by remote control from NASA’s John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and the results are then analysed by a team of scientists from NASA, US San Diego, Princeton, Cornell and other universities.

The experiments occurred in the Multiuser Droplet Combustion Apparatus, which is found within the ISS’s Combustion Integrated Rack, an experimental facility about the size of a 5.5 foot bookcase and around 560 lbs in weight. Here, data is recorded and transmitted to the ground.

In the microgravity environment of the Multiuser Droplet Combustion Apparatus, droplets are generated and ignited from different fuels in varying atmospheric conditions.

It is because of this environment that researchers are allowed sufficient test time for cool flames to occur. The research will not work in other environments. “Things can happen out there that can’t happen here [on earth],” Williams said.

The researchers believe that the cool flames are a result of elementary chemical reactions which can only occur in the microgravity environment on the ISS, where there is no buoyancy, allowing gases enough time around the droplets for the chemistry to develop.

This chemical reaction is not possible on earth since burning fuel droplets, limited by buoyancy, only exist for a very short period of time.

For the cool flame combustion to occur on earth, future applications will need the right mix of fuels. Thus, NASA is planning a new series of experiments to look into this challenge, which is said to start next winter and continue for about a year.

Images courtesy of Nasa

Flying senators: Aerofex’s hover bike to be considered by US government


Flying cars and vehicles have been imagined by futurists for decades, and have consistently been dismissed as fiction by those against the idea.

However, you can place an order for a working one today and receive it in three years.

The Aero-X bike, designed and built by Aerofex, can carry two people 10ft above the surface at speeds of up to 45mph. Although from Aerofex’s experience the most comfortable riding height is five feet above the ground.

The company says the pilots reference with the ground is very similar to riding a motorbike, so complex flying instruments are not necessary; it can also be flown over any surface.

We spoke to the company’s founder Mark De Roche to find out more about the potential for the bike.


The bike can be used over private land and water and wherever off-highway vehicles are allowed. This is because surface effect vehicles and hovercraft are classified as off-highway vehicles and boats and in the US.

Roche said that there has been a huge amount of interest in the bike and its potential uses. This includes from the government.

“We are currently working on a robotic version for agriculture – specifically aerial application,” he said.

“We are also in talks with the US Government about creating some derivative vehicles for their applications.”


The man behind the company says the technology used to create the bike is not intended to be used on the roads but for private use to help those who may need it the most.

Roche, who leads the company and is an aerospace engineer, said the technology could be used for larger transport vehicles.

He said: “We’ve designed the Aero-X as an aerial utility vehicle to be used by farmers, ranchers, and park and border patrol. It may also have industrial uses such as pipeline inspection and bridge maintenance.

“We also think it would be ideal for search and rescue as well as disaster relief. The technology itself is scalable to larger vehicles that could be used for transport, but that is beyond our current thinking.”

He also added that the company does not see the bike, which has an $85,000 price tag, being used on the roads, or by everyone.

“We do not envision the Aero-X as a means of transport or commuter vehicle,” he added.

“In fact, initial vehicles will not be categorized as off-road vehicles and will not be allowed to operate over roads.

This is an extract from a longer article in Issue 2 of Factor Magazine, which focuses on the future of everyday life. The magazine can be read for free online or by downloading the app for iPad.

All images courtesy of Aerofex.