Thesis - VCC in Zero-G - Final.pdf (10.94 MB)
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Vapor Compression Refrigeration in Microgravity

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posted on 19.12.2021, 18:29 by Leon Philipp Ma BrendelLeon Philipp Ma Brendel
As space exploration continues to accelerate, various cooling applications follow suit. Refrigeration and freezing of biological samples, astronaut food as well as electronics cooling and air-conditioning are necessary and demand increased capacity. In the past, these demands have been met by thermoelectric cooling or cryogenic cycles, which are easily adapted to a microgravity environment but have a relatively low efficiency in the refrigeration and freezing temperature range. A number of studies have investigated the development of higher efficiency vapor compression cycles for spacecraft, which would have the benefit of a smaller mass penalty due to the reduced power consumption. Despite notable research efforts during the 1990s, the number of vapor compression coolers that have operated in microgravity until today is small and their performance was insufficient to provide confidence into the technology for microgravity applications. Related experimental research has decreased since the 2000s.

For this dissertation, all vapor compression cycles (VCC) that have operated in microgravity according to the open literature were reviewed with their applications, compressor types and reported issues. Suggested design tools were summarized with a focus on gravity independence criteria for two-phase flow. For the most effective increase of the technology readiness level, simple but systematic experiments regarding the stability of VCCs against orientation and gravity changes were prioritized in this dissertation. An important goal of the research was the continuous operation and start-up of vapor compression cycles on parabolic flights, experiments that have not been reported in the open literature. Two separate test stands were built and flown on four parabolic flights, totaling 122 parabolas for each experiment.

The parabolic flight experiments were prepared with extensive ground-based testing. Multiple anomalies were encountered during the pursuit of continuous vapor compression cycle operation through a rotation of 360 degrees, including liquid flooding of the compressor. Systematic inclination testing was conducted with two different cycle configurations and a wide range of operating conditions. A strong correlation was found between the relative stability of the heat source heat transfer rate and the refrigerant mass flux for an inclination procedure with angle changes once every 2 minutes.

The parabolic flights exposed the test stand to quickly alternating hyper and microgravity. The evaporation temperature reacted to the different gravity levels with fluctuations that stretched on average 2.2 K from the maximum to minimum temperature measured during one set of parabolas. Changes of the evaporator inlet flow regime as a function of gravity were observed visually and the low-side pressure and mass flow rate sometimes oscillated in microgravity. The cycle responses induced by ground-based inclination testing were typically stronger than changes caused by the parabolic flight maneuvers for relatively low mass flow rates. Overall, the parabolic flight maneuvers were not detrimental to the cycle operation.

The second test stand was dedicated to liquid flooding observations at cycle start-up. Different flow regimes were observed in microgravity during testing with a transparent evaporator but the absence of gravity did not significantly alter the general time-based flooding quantifiers.

Design recommendations are drawn from the research where possible and summarized at the end of the dissertation. Selected data, code, pictures and videos were released together with this dissertation(Brendel, 2021)


This work was supported by NASA under SBIR contract 80NSSC18C0049


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Mechanical Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Eckhard A. Groll

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

James E. Braun

Additional Committee Member 2

Justin A. Weibel

Additional Committee Member 3

W. Travis Horton