One of the biggest limitations in space travel is fuel management. Transporting fuel has been a huge challenge that has limited space travel to either short trips or small satellites. Sixty years ago, researchers experimented with balloon-like storage units but could not find a material that would not shatter and leak in very cold temperatures.

A successful material must hold up in extremely cold temperatures especially when squeezed to drive the fuel to the vehicle’s fuel tank. Even the strongest materials and designs at that time were not robust enough for the stringent requirements. More current fuel systems were made from metal plates, but they were very slow and could only release fuels in small amounts. These options were still not sufficient to extend space travel opportunities significantly.

Recently, scientists began researching plastic fuel ‘bladders’ folded in a Japanese-inspired origami manner. The material they have been experimenting with is a thin Mylar plastic sheet. They are finding that the design and material make the unit strong enough to withstand exceptionally cold temperatures and not crack. The folds in the origami design create surface areas that allow stresses to be spread out.

The bladder was tested in liquid nitrogen at -320 degrees Fahrenheit. During testing, the unit was able to be squeezed more than 100 times without leaking. More rigorous testing will be done to the new design using liquid hydrogen. This will demonstrate how the unit will perform as a fuel system compared to other currently used methods.

The Polymers Technology Center works with companies in the development and production of new polymer materials for a wide variety of uses. Our engineers and technicians are always interested in learning about the challenges facing your company regarding polymers processing. Contact the Polymers Technology Center to learn more about our capabilities and expertise.