Fluid and Particle Preparation

Most liquids contain dissolved gases which can lead to the undesired generation of bubbles and corrosion of the metallic parts when the related containers are kept in space over a long period of time. Due to the surface-tension effects enabled accordingly (see the scientific description page , gas bubbles can interfere significantly with experiments which aim to study other aspects or phenomena. In a similar way, corrosion can cause uncontrolled variations in the composition of the considered fluids. Consequently, the fluid to be used in space experiments must be carefully prepared to ensure that they are free of dissolved gases, especially oxygen.

Although they are made of inert materials (such as glass), fine solid particles can also lead to undesired effects if they are not properly prepared or treated. Due to unavoidable electrostatic effects they can undergo undesired aggregation phenomena when dispersed in  a liquid or stick to the walls of the fluid container.  

The activities that Particle Vibration (T-PAOLA) science team had to implement to properly take into account all these aspects are illustrated in the following.

The Particles

The science team had to:

  1. Select spherical particles and ensure their size was in a specific (narrow) range.
  2. Remove the particles not satisfying the above conditions (non-spherical shapes, broken particles or too small or large particles). 
  3. Treat the particles to prevent them from developing undesired hydrophobic and electrostatic behaviours (potentially hindering their mobility when dispersed in a fluid).
Particles were manufactured by Microsphere Technology LtD  –  an innovative materials technology company specialised in the coating of microspheres. 
Both hollow and solid glass microspheres were selected in order to have particles lighter or heavier than the host liquid, respectively. In order to tune precisely their density and optimise their visualisation with the SODI hardware, such microspheres were coated with silver, thereby leading to four particle types: 
  • “Light” particles – silver coated hollow glass microspheres with a density of 0.14 g/cmand diameter of 75-90 µm.
  • “Standard Heavy” particles – silver coated hollow glass microspheres with a density of 1.32 g/cmand diameter of 75-90 µm.
  • “Small Heavy” particles – silver coated solid microspheres with a density of 2.24 g/cm3 and diameter of 53-63 µm.
  • “Extra Heavy” particles – silver coated solid glass microspheres with a density of 2.7 g/cm and diameter of 75-90 µm.

In order to prevent them from developing undesired aggregation effects of electrostatic nature (particles sticking to solid surfaces or forming agglomerates), a small percentage of surfactant has been added to the host liquid.

Light Particles
Standard Heavy Particles
Small Heavy Particles
Extra Heavy Particles

Particle Injection Procedure Definition and Optimisation

Given the fragile nature of some particles (such as the “light” ones described above), the tendency of these to be broken during their insertion in the fluid containers, and the intrinsic difficulties related to the need to inject them into the containers through a very small orifice (1 mm only), the research team had to develop, test and optimise a specific procedure to do so. The main steps of the final procedure (obtained after a number of failed attempts) are illustrated in the following: 

500-5000±50 particles are taken from polypropylene centrifuge tubes using a micro spatula (Fig. a) and tipped carefully on to the end of a thin tool of aluminum or carbon ensuring a single layer formation of particles on the surface (Fig.b).  Once counted, the tip of the tool is placed near the opening of the 1 mm port and tapped lightly to allow the particles to fall in, without necessitating any sweeping motion with rods or other tools, which could lead to breakages (Fig. c). A wide mouth aluminum micro-funnel with a 1 mm inner diameter tip is positioned over the filling port to facilitate this process. Since even through the aid of the funnel, some particles can remain on the innermost rim of the filling port (Fig. e), light tapping can be used to tip these particles into the cell (in general, as demonstrated by our tests, any remaining particles are sucked into the cell following application of vacuum).  

Fluid Preparation

The fluids were selected, treated, and stored in the following manner:

  1. Selected on the basis of numerical simulations.
  2. Treated to remove any dissolved gases (through a freeze-pump-thaw technique)
  3. Stored in gas-tight equipment before being injected in the fluid containers (cell arrays).
Ethanol being degassed in the laboratory of the University of Strathclyde
Liquid nitrogen being poured into dewar for the freezing process.
Ethanol straight after the freezing cycle

Fluid Containers Filling

The fluid containers for the experiments were finally filled with the required particles and degassed liquid by means of a dedicated procedure specifically conceived to prevent air from dissolving into the pre-treated (degassed) liquid.