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Powering the Mission to Mars


Written By: Chris Eversole

Greater Gainesville researcher Robert Kielb is developing a cutting-edge technology with two very different applications – one is enabling a manned mission to Mars, and the other is reducing greenhouse gasses.

Both projects use shock waves – which are like the waves that come from a sonic boom of an airplane or a bomb exploding. The technology centers around a device called a wave heater, which uses shock waves to heat a gas to extremely high temperatures.

For the Mars mission, NASA has identified nuclear thermal propulsion as the only viable propulsion system. In order to test the NTP system, which creates 5,000-degree (literally) radioactive hydrogen, the hot-hydrogen containment system designed by NASA has to be verified using 5,000-degree non-radioactive hydrogen. NASA selected ACENT Laboratories to deliver a wave superheater for the testing.

Kielb is the principal investigator developing the NASA hydrogen wave heater. Last year, ACENT tested a shock wave superheater using nitrogen as a surrogate for hydrogen.

In its demonstration, ACENT used nitrogen, rather than hydrogen, to save money and ensure safety. The demonstration was a stepping stone to delivery of the hydrogen wave heater to NASA.

“In the hydrogen wave heater project, the shock waves will be used to heat hydrogen to temperatures that simulate a nuclear reactor,” said Kielb, who works from the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC).

NASA selected the wave heater technology mainly for cost reasons.

“Generating the hot hydrogen required for verification of the containment system by other means would have cost one-third to one-half of the entire $250 million budget for the NTP system,” Kielb said. “With the wave superheater, we are able to fulfill the safety requirements at a much lower cost.”

ACENT hopes to continue working with NASA throughout development of the mission to Mars, which is planned for some time in the 2030s.

Easing Pollution

A novel application of the wave heater is in converting natural gas into a clean-burning fuel. This approach uses pressure to create waves similar to a sonic boom to superheat natural gas. The natural gas reaches such a high temperature that it separates into its elements – hydrogen and carbon.

The hydrogen can be used to generate clean energy, and the carbon can be sold as a secondary product. No carbon dioxide is created, meaning the process creates clean energy. In addition, because there is a secondary product, the system pays for itself.

Kielb cofounded Standing Wave Reformers LLC. His device, the Shock Wave Fuel Reformer, is patent-pending. Once the patent is issued, SWR will license the technology to industrial partners such as General Electric and Siemens so they can commercialize it.

“The end users are the oil and gas companies that operate wells and refineries as well as companies that operate electrical power plants,” Kielb said. “A large part of what I’m doing is educational, informing the end users about the benefits because a clean energy device with a return on investment sounds too good to be true.”

Standing Wave Reformers has strong interest from companies in Canada and France.

“So far, I’ve received more interest from international companies than from ones in the United States, but I actually expect that to change this year,” Kielb said.

Returning Gator

Kielb graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1993 and a master’s in mechanical engineering in 1998.

He returned to Gainesville five years ago with his wife, Erin, and their sons, Jackson, 16; Campbell, 14; and Lucas, 12.

“We love Gainesville and the Gators,” Kielb said. “We enjoy interacting with the fresh and vibrant community. After living in South Florida and Washington DC for a number of years, it’s great to be back in town and be part of the growth of Greater Gainesville.”

Kielb enjoys working at GTEC.

“In the hydrogen wave heater project, the shock waves will be used to heat hydrogen to temperatures that simulate a nuclear reactor. ”

Robert Kielb

“It’s a great facility, with first-rate space and an opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs,” he said. “It also helps startups in many ways, from advice on how to organize their companies to graphic-design services that have helped me create my logo and other material.” 

This the first of series of articles profiling companies supported by Santa Fe College’s incubators – the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC), the Center for Innovation and Economic Development (CIED) and the Innovative Product Development Center (IPDC).

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