Are cheaper gasoline and other forms of energy in America’s future?
NASA and industry are funding research to study zeolites — crystals with
the potential to reduce the cost and pollution associated with producing
gasoline and other petroleum products.

Zeolites have a rigid crystal structure with a network of
interconnected tunnels and cages, similar to a honeycomb. Virtually all
the world’s gasoline is produced using zeolites. Industry also uses
natural and synthetic zeolites to make numerous products: In cat litter,
zeolites absorb odors; in water filters, zeolites remove impurities; in
laundry detergents, they soften hard water by removing calcium; and in
cars, zeolites act as catalytic converters, reducing pollutants.

Industry wants to improve zeolite crystals so that more gasoline can
be produced from a barrel of oil, making the industry more efficient. To
facilitate this goal, NASA has helped industry fly zeolite crystals on
three NASA Space Shuttle missions since 1992. They are scheduled to be
grown on a Shuttle mission again next year, and on the International Space
Station — the first permanent research laboratory in space.

To learn more about these useful crystals, researchers from industry
and academia are conducting experiments through NASA’s Space Product
Development Program, managed at the Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, Ala. This program helps industry take advantage of space and
microgravity — the near-weightless environment inside an orbiting
spacecraft — to create new products, improve existing ones and find
solutions to questions or problems.

“Our experiments in space have shown that larger and better quality
crystals can be grown in microgravity,” said former Space Shuttle
crewmember Dr. Albert Sacco Jr., director of the Center for Advanced
Microgravity Materials Processing — a NASA Commercial Space Center at
Northeastern University in Boston. This center is one of 16 NASA
Commercial Space Centers, each focusing on a different area of research of
interest to industry.

“Data from space experiments are helping us grow better zeolite
crystals on Earth,” said Sacco. “Industry wants to fine-tune the structure
of zeolites to get more gasoline out of a barrel of oil during the
refining process. An increase of 1 percent in the amount of gasoline from
a barrel of oil is equal to an approximately $400 million reduction in the
balance of payments in America. Theoretically, this could lead to less
dependence on foreign oil.”

The problem with zeolite crystals produced on Earth is that they are
extremely small – roughly 2 to 8 microns, about the size of microscopic
bacteria. To better define the structures of zeolites, scientists need to
grow crystals that are 200 to 1000 times larger.

“In microgravity, materials come together more slowly, allowing
zeolite crystals to form larger and with better order,” said Sacco, who
worked as a payload specialist and grew zeolites aboard the Space Shuttle
on the STS-73 mission in 1995. “These larger, more perfectly formed
space-grown crystals tell us more about the way the crystal is made and
how it works.”

NASA’s Commercial Space Center at Northeastern University is working
both to help industry improve petroleum fuel refining and to develop new
fuels that are cheaper and cleaner. Hydrogen is one of the candidate fuels
being investigated. Companies have designed engines that burn hydrogen,
but scientists must find a way to store and transport it safely and

“Zeolites can store quite a bit of hydrogen, but we need to find out
how to store enough hydrogen so that it can be used in a car fuel tank at
normal operating temperatures and pressures,” said Sacco. “One way to do
this would be to make zeolites or zeo-type materials that can store
hydrogen much like a liquid in a bottle.”

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it’s
pollution free. Sacco predicts hydrogen fuel will be a “leapfrog
technology” that changes the way we live — much like the revolutionary
change when the world moved from coal to petroleum as its primary fuel.

“If we can find a way to store hydrogen safely and inexpensively, in
10 to 15 years, you’ll see America turning from gasoline to hydrogen as
the main fuel source,” said Sacco.

While most of their 1999 research focused on zeolites, Sacco and his
research team at the Commercial Space Center in Boston also are studying
how space and microgravity can be used to improve other materials.

They are working with a company to study how gravity affects
crystals used to make photographic films. Other universities and research
institutions are teaming with them to develop sensors that may reduce
pollution released as automobiles burn fuel.

“Through Commercial Space Centers like ours, NASA will help industry
take advantage of a national resource – the International Space Station –
the most sophisticated laboratory to ever be put in orbit,” Sacco said.


News release


Space Product Development Program Web site

Center for Advanced Microgravity Materials Processing