Successful space missions can rarely be attributed to a single thing. Rather, they are the result of a system of systems: integrated elements functioning effectively in their individual roles and together with related components, then those systems interacting with and supporting other systems to form a collaborative whole—from the spacecraft itself to the engineering and research teams that design and build it.
An example is found in spacecraft power systems. Unlike a gas-powered car or a battery-powered laptop, most spacecraft are powered by multiple energy sources—such as photovoltaic panels, fuel cells, and batteries—working in tandem to ensure the spacecraft functions throughout the course of a mission. As with any system, the appropriate combination of elements and the method of their management are key to high performance and efficiency.
One initiative at Glenn Research Center, the Hybrid Power Management (HPM) program, focused on joining new and mature technologies for optimal power systems applications in space and on Earth, with the goal not only to develop ultra-efficient space power systems, but to advance HPM to address global energy issues. The HPM program emerged from Glenn’s long history of electric vehicle research dating back to the 1970s, including the NASA Hybrid Electric Transit Bus (HETB) project in the 1990s, which was the largest vehicle to use supercapacitor energy storage.
Unlike batteries that store and discharge energy through chemical reactions, supercapacitors store energy electrostatically. In this way, supercapacitors charge and release energy more quickly than a battery, and unlike a battery, can tolerate up to 1 million charge and discharge cycles without wearing out. Though there were certain disadvantages compared to batteries, such as low energy storage, supercapacitors presented an interesting candidate to couple with batteries or other power sources in space applications or in hybrid electric land vehicles.
To help test the effectiveness of supercapacitors for power systems, NASA formed a unique partnership— perhaps the only one in the Agency’s history to involve a dragster.
The dragster was named “Bad Amplitude,” and it was battery-powered. Capable of achieving a speed of 127 miles per hour in a quarter mile, the dragster presented an ideal testbed for the supercapacitors NASA was studying. Through the NASA Illinois Commercialization Center (NICC), which at the time provided technology commercialization services for the state’s businesses, Glenn partnered with the dragster’s developer, NetGain Technologies LLC of Lockport, Illinois, in 2003.
The partnership also focused on another advanced concept: the development of a retrofit system for converting rear-wheel drive vehicles into gas/electric hybrids, installing an electric assist motor and using supercapacitors instead of batteries.
While the supercapacitors ultimately did not suit the dragster or the retrofit system, at the conclusion of the NICC grant, NetGain had provided NASA with significant data on supercapacitor use and had proven the viability of a hybrid retrofit system (HRS) using batteries. The company continued developing the HRS, including methods for coordinating the operation of electric motors and internal combustion engines. This NASA-derived work has now led not only to commercial HRS technology, but also, according to NetGain, to the world’s most popular line of motors for electric vehicles.
NetGain Technologies’ patent-pending Engine/Motor Interface System (EMIS) employs an electric motor inserted into the drive train of a standard, gas-powered vehicle to supply electrical assist power to the internal combustion engine. Through monitoring multiple engine performance parameters, EMIS strategically establishes the appropriate amounts of assist power to significantly enhance the vehicle’s fuel economy. The system operates in the background, requiring no driver intervention or changes to typical driving habits.