2018_Son_Dissertation FINAL.pdf (8.4 MB)

Improved Prediction of Adsorption-Based Life Support for Deep Space Exploration

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posted on 17.01.2019 by Karen N. Son
Adsorbent technology is widely used in many industrial applications including waste heat recovery, water purification, and atmospheric revitalization in confined habitations. Astronauts depend on adsorbent-based systems to remove metabolic carbon dioxide (CO2) from the cabin atmosphere; as NASA prepares for the journey to Mars, engineers are redesigning the adsorbent-based system for reduced weight and optimal efficiency. These efforts hinge upon the development of accurate, predictive models, as simulations are increasingly relied upon to save cost and time over the traditional design-build-test approach. Engineers rely on simplified models to reduce computational cost and enable parametric optimizations. Amongst these simplified models is the axially dispersed plug-flow model for predicting the adsorbate concentration during flow through an adsorbent bed. This model is ubiquitously used in designing fixed-bed adsorption systems. The current work aims to improve the accuracy of the axially dispersed plug-flow model because of its wide-spread use. This dissertation identifies the critical model inputs that drive the overall uncertainty in important output quantities then systematically improves the measurement and prediction of these input parameters. Limitations of the axially dispersed plug-flow model are also discussed, and recommendations made for identifying failure of the plug-flow assumption.

An uncertainty and sensitivity analysis of an axially disperse plug-flow model is first presented. Upper and lower uncertainty bounds for each of the model inputs are found by comparing empirical correlations against experimental data from the literature. Model uncertainty is then investigated by independently varying each model input between its individual upper and lower uncertainty bounds then observing the relative change in predicted effluent concentration and temperature (e.g., breakthrough time, bed capacity, and effluent temperature). This analysis showed that the LDF mass transfer coefficient is the largest source of uncertainty. Furthermore, the uncertainty analysis reveals that ignoring the effect of wall-channeling on apparent axial dispersion can cause significant error in the predicted breakthrough times of small-diameter beds.

In addition to LDF mass transfer coefficient and axial-dispersion, equilibrium isotherms are known to be strong lever arms and a potentially dominant source of model error. As such, detailed analysis of the equilibrium adsorption isotherms for zeolite 13X was conducted to improve the fidelity of CO2 and H2O on equilibrium isotherms compared to extant data. These two adsorbent/adsorbate pairs are of great interest as NASA plans to use zeolite 13X in the next generation atmospheric revitalization system. Equilibrium isotherms describe a sorbent’s maximum capacity at a given temperature and adsorbate (e.g., CO2 or H2O) partial pressure. New isotherm data from NASA Ames Research Center and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center for CO2 and H2O adsorption on zeolite 13X are presented. These measurements were carefully collected to eliminate sources of bias in previous data from the literature, where incomplete activation resulted in a reduced capacity. Several models are fit to the new equilibrium isotherm data and recommendations of the best model fit are made. The best-fit isotherm models from this analysis are used in all subsequent modeling efforts discussed in this dissertation.

The last two chapters examine the limitations of the axially disperse plug-flow model for predicting breakthrough in confined geometries. When a bed of pellets is confined in a rigid container, packing heterogeneities near the wall lead to faster flow around the periphery of the bed (i.e., wall channeling). Wall-channeling effects have long been considered negligible for beds which hold more than 20 pellets across; however, the present work shows that neglecting wall-channeling effects on dispersion can yield significant errors in model predictions. There is a fundamental gap in understanding the mechanisms which control wall-channeling driven dispersion. Furthermore, there is currently no way to predict wall channeling effects a priori or even to identify what systems will be impacted by it. This dissertation aims to fill this gap using both experimental measurements and simulations to identify mechanisms which cause the plug-flow assumption to fail.

First, experimental evidence of wall-channeling in beds, even at large bed-to-pellet diameter ratios (dbed/dp=48) is presented. These experiments are then used to validate a method for accurately extracting mass transfer coefficients from data affected by significant wall channeling. The relative magnitudes of wall-channeling effects are shown to be a function of the adsorption/adsorbate pair and geometric confinement (i.e., bed size). Ultimately, the axially disperse plug-flow model fails to capture the physics of breakthrough when nonplug-flow conditions prevail in the bed.

The final chapter of this dissertation develops a two-dimensional (2-D) adsorption model to examine the interplay of wall-channeling and adsorption kinetics and the adsorbent equilibrium capacity on breakthrough in confined geometries. The 2-D model incorporates the effect of radial variations in porosity on the velocity profile and is shown to accurately capture the effect of wall-channeling on adsorption behavior. The 2-D model is validated against experimental data, and then used to investigate whether capacity or adsorption kinetics cause certain adsorbates to exhibit more significant radial variations in concentration compared than others. This work explains channeling effects can vary for different adsorbate and/or adsorbent pairs—even under otherwise identical conditions—and highlights the importance of considering adsorption kinetics in addition to the traditional dbed/dp criteria.

This dissertation investigates key gaps in our understanding of fixed-bed adsorption. It will deliver insight into how these missing pieces impact the accuracy of predictive models and provide a means for reconciling these errors. The culmination of this work will be an accurate, predictive model that assists in the simulation-based design of the next-generation atmospheric revitalization system for humans’ journey to Mars.


NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF grant #NNX13AL55H)


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Mechanical Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Suresh V. Garimella

Additional Committee Member 2

Justin A. Weibel

Additional Committee Member 3

Amy M. Marconnet

Additional Committee Member 4

Sangtae Kim

Additional Committee Member 5

James C. Knox