Power and Water the NASA Way

We’re sometimes met with a puzzled look at Isotherm Energy when we describe our hydrogen energy system architecture and its ability to store energy, generate power, recover heat, and produce potable water.  It seems the combination of functions – particularly energy and water together - is unfamiliar to many.  After three decades of working at NASA where these types of systems have been routine since the mid-1960s, I hadn’t considered that it might sound odd to those outside the aerospace industry.

A recent article about the famously jinxed Apollo 13 mission describes an early example:

“Apollo 13 lost its electricity, light, and water supply… The loss of an oxygen tank was crippling to an Apollo spacecraft because the oxygen tanks powered the fuel cells that powered the spacecraft… The electrochemical reaction of combining cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen produced electricity, heat, and potable water as byproducts.” [Popular Science, Apr 15, 2016]

The Space Shuttle also used fuel cells in a similar manner:

“Fuel cells are used in the space shuttle as one component of the electrical power system. Three fuel cell power plants, through a chemical reaction, generate all of the electrical power for the vehicle from launch through landing rollout… are individually coupled to the reactant (hydrogen and oxygen) distribution subsystem, the heat rejection subsystem, the potable water storage subsystem, and the electrical power distribution and control subsystem. The fuel cell power plants generate heat and water as by-products of electrical power generation.” [NASA]

As another more personal example, I was asked in 1991 by NASA Headquarters to conduct a study on launching water to low earth orbit for processing into hydrogen and oxygen propellants to support missions to the moon and Mars.  The published system concept I designed used an electrolyzer to produce the propellants, and then liquefy them for storage until a spacecraft docked for refueling.  We would revisit aspects of this configuration later at NASA when I worked on designs to provide power, propulsion, water and environmental control for lunar surface systems.

So the integration of proven aerospace technologies into a combined energy-water-heat recovery architecture was a natural extension of my personal experiences and background.  And I’m convinced it will serve us well as we begin to view our energy, water and food systems here on earth from a more integrated sustainable perspective.

Left: Part of an unflown Apollo fuel cell [National Air and Space Museum]

Right: One of the three fuel cells that provides electrical power to the space shuttle orbiter [NASA]

Propellant processor primary flow block diagram (baseline lunar scenario) [Moran]


Matt Moran is a Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy and has been developing power, thermal, and fluid systems since 1982.  He has a passion for the business and engineering of technology development and its integration into commercial products. Matt was the Sector Manager for Energy and Materials at NASA Glenn Research Center where he worked for over 30 years.  He has also co-founded or been a key contributor to five technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering consulting to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here