Bursting Bubbles From Combustion of Thermoplastic Materials in Microgravity
Kathryn M. Butler
Many thermoplastic materials in common use for a wide range of applications, including spacecraft, develop bubbles internally as they bum due to chemical reactions taking place within the bulk. These bubbles grow and migrate until they burst at the surface, forceably ejecting volatile gases and, occasionally, molten fuel. In experiments in normal gravity, Kashiwagi and Ohlemiller observed vapor jets extending a few centimeters from the surface of a radiatively heated polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) sample, with some molten material ejected into the gas phase. These physical phenomena complicated the combustion process considerably. In addition to the non-steady release of volatiles, the depth of the surface layer affected by oxygen was increased, attributed to the roughening of the surface by bursting events. The ejection of burning droplets in random directions presents a potential fire hazard unique to microgravity. In microgravity combustion experiments on nylon Velcro fasteners and on polyethylene wire insulation, the presence of bursting fuel vapor bubbles was associated with the ejection of small particles of molten fuel as well as pulsations of the flame. For the nylon fasteners, particle velocities were higher than 30 cm/sec. The droplets burned robustly until all fuel was consumed, demonstrating the potential for the spread of fire in random directions over an extended distance. The sequence of events for a bursting bubble has been photographed by Newitt et al. As the bubble reaches the fluid surface, the outer surface forms a dome while the internal bubble pressure maintains a depression at the inner interface. Liquid drains from the dome until it breaks into a cloud of droplets on the order of a few microns in size. The bubble gases are released rapidly, generating vortices in the quiescent surroundings and transporting the tiny droplets. The depression left by the escaping gases collapses into a central jet, which rises with a high velocity and may break up, releasing one or more relatively large drops (on the order of a millimeter in these experiments). A better understanding of bubble development and bursting processes, the effects of bursting behavior on burning rate of the bulk material, and the circumstances under which large droplets are expelled, as well as their trajectories, sizes, and burning rates, is sought through computer modeling compared with experiment.
Microgravity Combustion Workshop, Fourth (5th) International