Current spacecraft-compatible cleaning protocols involve a vapor degreaser, liquid sonication, and alcohol wiping. These methods are not very effective in removing live and dead microbes from spacecraft piece parts of slightly complicated geometry, such as tubing and loosely fitted nuts and bolts. Contamination control practices are traditionally focused on cleaning and monitoring of particulate and oily residual. Vapor degreaser and outgassing bakeout have not been proven to be effective in removing some less volatile, hydrophilic biomolecules of significant relevance to life detection.

A precision cleaning technology was developed using supercritical CO2 (SCC). SCC is used as both solvent and carrier for removing organic and particulate contaminants. Supercritical fluid, like SCC, is characterized by physical and thermal properties that are between those of the pure liquid and gas phases. The fluid density is a function of the temperature and pressure. Its solvating power can be adjusted by changing the pressure or temperature, or adding a secondary solvent such as alcohol or water.

Unlike a regular organic solvent, SCC has higher diffusivities, lower viscosity, and lower surface tension. It readily penetrates porous and fibrous solids and can reach hard-to-reach surfaces of the parts with complex geometry. Importantly, the CO2 solvent does not leave any residue.

The results using this new cleaning device demonstrated that both supercritical CO2 with 5% water as a co-solvent can achieve cleanliness levels of 0.01 mg/cm2 or less for contaminants of a wide range of hydrophobicities. Experiments under the same conditions using compressed Martian air mix, which consists of 95% CO2, produced similar cleaning effectiveness on the hydrophobic compounds.

The main components of the SCC cleaning system are a high-pressure cleaning vessel, a boil-off vessel located downstream from the cleaning vessel, a syringe-type high-pressure pump, a heat exchanger, and a back pressure regulator (BPR).

After soaking the parts to be cleaned in the clean vessel for a period, the CO2 with contaminants is flushed out of the cleaning vessel using fresh CO2 in a first-in-first-out (FIFO) method. The contaminants are either precipitating out in the boil-off container or being trapped in a filter subsystem. The parts to be cleaned are secured in a basket inside and can be rotated up to 1,400 rpm by a magnetic drive. The fluid flows within the vessel generate tangential forces on the parts’ surfaces, enhancing the cleaning effectiveness and shortening the soaking time.

During the FIFO flushing, the pump subsystem pushes fresh CO2 into the cleaning vessel at a constant flow rate between 0.01 and 200 mL/min, while the BPR regulates the pressure in the cleaning vessel to within 0.1 bar by controlling the needle position in an outlet valve.

The fresh CO2 gas flows through the heat exchanger at a given temperature before entering the cleaning vessel. A platinum resistance thermometer (PRT) reads the cleaning vessel interior temperature that can be controlled to within 0.1 K. As a result, cleaning vessel temperature remains constant during the FIFO flushing. There is no change in solvent power during FIFO flushing since both temperature and pressure inside the cleaning vessel remain unchanged, thus minimizing contaminants left behind. During decompression, both temperature and pressure are strictly controlled to prevent bubbles from generating in the cleaning vessel that could stir up the contaminants that sank to the bottom by gravity.

This work was done by Ying Lin, Fang Zhong, David C. Aveline, and Mark S. Anderson of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NPO-47414

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
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Supercritical CO2 Cleaning System for Planetary Protection and Contamination Control Applications

(reference NPO-47414) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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