"How does fluid move in space?" That is the question that guides the innovative researchers at IRPI, an engineering firm specializing in fluid-thermal engineering across various industries, such as biomedical, energy, and, most notably, aerospace. Over the last ten years, the team at IRPI has become leading experts in exploring how fluid moves in space, how to control that movement, and how to apply that knowledge to design systems that accommodate further space exploration.
IRPI launched in 2011 with engineer Ryan Jenson and Portland State University professor and low-gravity fluid dynamics expert Mark Weislogel. IRPI landed its first major contract with NASA by proposing to evaluate the life-supporting water systems in spacesuit backpacks. This research was particularly important after a routine spacewalk made headlines in 2013 when an unexpected malfunction caused water to flood the helmet of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano. The dangerous event nearly drowned Parmitano and forced NASA to abort the intended mission.
Jenson, the company's president and principal engineer, says that a large section of their research portfolio involves studying how capillary action works in microgravity.
"On Earth, we take it for granted that if you have a bowl of water, the water will remain in the bowl because gravity keeps it there. When you're in space, you don't have that net gravitational force," Jenson said. "So, surface tension takes over, and it can wick and move it passively, similar to the way that a paper towel placed in a bowl of water wicks liquid through capillary action. That same capillary action happens in space, though on a macroscale capable of wicking tons of liquid. In low-gravity, you can move an entire fuel tank's worth of liquid through wicking."
According to Jenson, IRPI is currently working on a project that combines a flow pattern unique to space with advanced material designs that will allow fluid to flow through piping systems without touching the pipes' walls. This specialized system could reduce the need for replacement pipes in the future and provide enhanced sustainability in aerospace systems.
Because fluid research is vital to space exploration, IRPI's portfolio intersects a range of specialized fields. The company often works alongside other developers on NASA projects. IRPI is involved in developing hydroponic systems to support plant life and CO2 scrubbing systems that refresh spent air inside a spacecraft. They have also worked on projects involving human life support, waste and water management, and biological sampling and DNA sequencing in space. The IRPI team caught the media's eye a few years ago with its Space Coffee Cup. This cup uses fluid dynamics to mimic the effect of gravity, enabling astronauts to drink coffee, out of a cup, even in zero gravity.
IRPI is a world leader in microgravity research. It is a prolific developer of systems, devices, and experiments for drop tower, aircraft, and in-space platforms, including the International Space Station. Jenson says one of the most significant milestones the company experienced was the shift in NASA's perception of its work. Being pioneers in their field, the team at IRPI faced some doubt on the part of the space agency early in the company's history.
"I remember Mark saying, 'You know, no one at NASA believes this stuff works.' At the time, it was cutting-edge research," Jenson said. "And I said, 'We have to do it. We have to show them, and they'll get it.' And over the last ten years, that's been true. NASA comes to us as the experts in this area now, and they accept the fluid management systems we've developed and they've seen that they work, and now they believe us. That shift of perception with NASA was a significant milestone for us."
IRPI technologies are used aboard the International Space Station Space. IRPI has tested its technology in space on multiple occasions, including active experiments and engineering demonstrations. The latest experiment will launch aboard SpaceX CRS-21 in November 2020. Jenson is excited that IRPI is moving towards designing full-flight systems such as the CO2 scrubber.
"It went from being something theoretical, and now it's going to be a full installation on a space station and possibly on the ships that take us to the moon or Mars," Jenson said.
IRPI currently has seven interns on their team who get to work directly with NASA. It joined the Portland State Business Accelerator in 2019 and has participated in a capstone program with the mechanical engineering department at Portland State University.
"We have a good relationship with PSU. The Business Accelerator provides a diverse set of facilities that we need to do the work that we do. The University gives us access to the drop tower, which we use to simulate and study the effects of zero gravity, and also gives us proximity to students, grad students, and interns who have been able to work for us," said Jenson.
Unlike Boeing, building an entire space station is not on IRPI's agenda. Nevertheless, IRPI aspires to be an integral part of the next generation of aerospace flight and habitation systems, and they're doing it one small piece of tech at a time.