Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

For Orion, NASA is increasing the life of the emergency breathing device currently aboard the ISS and pictured here during fire training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (Image: European Space Agency)

Astronauts on Orion, NASA’s first crew-carrying space vehicle since the space shuttle, will be equipped with emergency breathing devices designed to protect astronauts during a fire on the International Space Station (ISS). But fire procedures on the two vessels will differ, so NASA is looking to improve the respirator for Orion by making it last longer. During a fire in space, astronauts are trained to wear respirators while they extinguish the blaze. But any fire would almost certainly release gases and particulates, so it could take hours of cleanup before the air is breathable without a mask.

The emergency breathing device NASA designed for the ISS and other spacecraft includes a one-size-fits-all-astronauts (the general population may have a wider range of sizes) fire-resistant mask that can be fitted with a filter cartridge developed specifically for fire. The fire cartridge has ten layers of filtering materials, including black carbon, co-catalysts, and rayon. Unlike on ISS — where in the event of a fire, astronauts would likely be able to move for a time to another of the numerous habitable modules — astronauts on Orion, a much smaller vehicle, could have to spend more time in a fire-contaminated space.

NASA contractor, Jacobs Engineering, searched around the world for organizations that might have the technical expertise to extend the life of the current respirator. In May 2018, a call went out to Lanaco, a New Zealand company that develops and produces wool filter material, with a focus at that point on personal protective equipment in the workspace and air pollution filtration. The Jacobs team was especially interested in particle filtration. Lanaco founder Nick Davenport, a materials applications engineer, knew wool was well suited to such an application. He and his colleagues had noticed the interesting properties of wool while working with polymers about a decade earlier.

“The deeper we dug into the science of wool and how it could perform in an industrial application, using new science, the more we saw there was an opportunity,” he said. Wool is naturally resistant to fire and bacteria and manages water well. Davenport wondered why this extraordinary material wasn’t being used for filtration around the world. They realized air filter technology was focused on synthetic materials, overlooking this natural alternative.

Davenport founded Lanaco and developed his proprietary wool filter technology. The company amassed a specialized commercial flock of sheep by working with a top breeder to maximize the qualities of wool that make good filters and to reduce the material’s variability. They focused on the attributes needed to make the best all-natural fiber air filter for respiratory applications. Jacobs was looking specifically for a prefilter that could fit over NASA’s existing fire cartridge to increase the life of the system for Orion. Lanaco then began to tailor its Helix filter for the application.

The particles that would fly around in the event of a spacecraft fire — including droplets of water used to extinguish a blaze — are potentially small and hot, and the existing technology is typically made of polymers with a relatively low melting point. A product like wool, which doesn’t promote a fire or degrade rapidly under hot particles, has clear advantages. The technology enables the main filter to function in the presence of hot particles and dangerous gases. It works by removing the bigger particles like water and toxic components that could stop the main filter from working.

Prior to the NASA contract, Lanaco had not been working directly in the area of critical breathing applications. Now, the company has some expertise, with wool performing particularly well in fire resistance and moisture management.

Lanaco has begun creating filters for Fire and Emergency New Zealand applications by testing and prototyping the product with local fire personnel. The firefighting services appreciate the ability of the Helix filters to capture coarse, hot particles; filter well in high-moisture environments; and offer the lowest possible resistance to breathing.

Davenport said the work will eventually guide Lanaco’s science and breeding programs as well. He believes it will also continue to inspire consumer confidence in the company’s existing markets, such as personal protective equipment, urban air pollution masks, and air purifiers.

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Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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