Rocket Man, Rocket Fuel

Ian Richardson.

Inspiring Exploration

From the highways of Earth to the seas of Titan, WSU Ph.D. student Ian Richardson is on a quest to improve the state of our planet and push the boundaries of space.

Space fantasies and rocket launches

Engineering wizard Ian Richardson wants to find ways to replace fossil fuels with hydrogen. He wants to design and build bigger rockets to take people farther than we’ve ever gone before. And he wants to travel in space.

In grade school, Richardson loved to camp out on the deck of his Port Orchard, Wash., home to watch meteor showers and falling stars. He would fall asleep imagining what it would be like to walk on the moon or travel to other galaxies. “There wasn’t a time when I didn’t think about space,” he says. “I was boggled by the enormity of it all–how far away stars are–how big they are.”

“I used to joke with my parents that I was actually an alien who had somehow managed to land on Earth…”

Richardson devoured science fiction movies and was an avid fan of the X-Files TV series. “I used to joke with my parents that I was actually an alien who had somehow managed to land on Earth,” he recalls. “I wore those shirts with the buttons to school; you would press the buttons and they would say things like ‘greetings, earthlings.’”

Both of Richardson’s parents indulged his enthusiasm and creativity. They played along with his fantasies, and let him explore and experiment. “I was always raiding my mom’s cooking cabinets and mixing things together – anything I could get my hands on. My mom was okay with it, but I had to clean things up, especially when the volcanoes got too big,” he laughs.

Young Ian Richardson wearing a backpack.
Ian Richardson.
Ian Richardson with his family at the summit of Pikes Peak.
Ian Richardson with his family.

He remembers taking apart his broken toys, especially remote-controlled cars. “I would spend hours and hours trying to fix a wheel, or get a burned-out engine to work.”

Richardson’s dad, Mark, is a mechanical engineer who works on aircraft carriers at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. His grandfather, Vic Buchanan, is a retired Boeing mechanic. When he was in junior high school, Richardson learned that his grandfather had done design work for the wing of the first stealth bomber. That knowledge moved him to study aeronautics as a hobby. Aircraft and rocket design remain popular subjects during annual family hunting trips.

In high school, Richardson was a wrestler, a snowboarder, and a superlative student who excelled in math and science. He often stayed after class to question his teachers and pick up extra subject matter. One physics experiment particularly ignited his passion for design. Teams of students were challenged to build catapults in order to propel water balloons toward their teacher, who stood some distance away in an open field.

“That was a great moment for me. This thing went from an idea in my head, to a design on paper, to a finished product.”

“We were failing miserably. Nobody could get close,” says Richardson. “We hit on the idea of a trebuchet; a kind of compound catapult. We ended up overshooting the teacher and had to back down on the counter-weights. That was a great moment for me. This thing went from an idea in my head, to a design on paper, to a finished product. I knew then I could actually engineer something that worked.”

Nothing epitomizes Richardson’s big personality, or his family’s sense of fun, more than their shared love of fireworks.

What began as prosaic Fourth of July family backyard fireworks rituals are now elaborate, community events. The escalation started when Ian and his brother were hired to work for a family friend in his fireworks business. Armed with an ever-increasing arsenal of mortars, fountains, and aerials, Richardson wondered, “What if we light two at a time – or three – or four?” He began to choreograph elaborate displays for ever-increasing gatherings of onlookers. One year, a firework tipped over and shot off toward the crowd. The next year, platforms were built and installed on the Richardson’s roof.

The display now takes up to a week to prepare. Richardson’s dad does much of the wiring and fusing. His brother and sister both help with the installation. After dark, armed with an elaborate remote control, Richardson times and launches his arrays from a lawn chair amid the celebrants. He has pushed his pyrotechnics about as far as he can as an amateur. “The next step would be to set the displays to music. It’s an expensive jump,” Richardson says with a gleam in his eye. “I’d love to do fireworks for Coug games.”

Aerial view of WSU Cougar's Martin Stadium during a nighttime football game.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or what your differences are; on game day, everybody’s on the same side and everybody’s cheering for the same team…”

The WSU field of play

Ian Richardson loves being a Coug. His dad graduated from WSU, and their family followed WSU football throughout his childhood. When he arrived in Pullman in 2007 as a freshman, Richardson felt completely at ease and at home.

“I like the culture and the community of WSU. I guess that’s why I’ve stayed for so long,” he says. “Everybody in Pullman is a Coug. There’s an atmosphere here that you don’t get in other cities. It’s a true college town.”

The Cougar spirit really hit home during his first experience, as a freshman, at a home football game. He remembers mingling with the crowd and being extremely impressed by the camaraderie.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or what your differences are; on game day, everybody’s on the same side and everybody’s cheering for the same team,” he says. “Complete strangers have conversations they wouldn’t have anywhere else. It’s very unique. On a Thursday, all the parking lots are full of RVs for a game on Saturday. That’s how special this place is.”

By sophomore year, Richardson settled on mechanical engineering as his major course of study. “I knew that I wanted to work with machines,” he explains. “I had a need to find out how things work, but I also wanted to actually build things – not just sit at a desk. WSU’s mechanical engineering program is very hands-on. It was perfect for me.”

“I also wanted to actually build things – not just sit at a desk. WSU’s mechanical engineering program is very hands-on. It was perfect for me.”

One of Richardson’s favorite undergrad projects was a team assignment to build a solar-heated box. The goal of the project was to heat the box outdoors in December. His team struggled to make their lukewarm experiment function more effectively. He chuckles at the memory.

“It had to be at least midnight. Maybe even one or two in the morning. We all had energy drinks and it suddenly occurred to us, ‘Hmm, these cans are black. Let’s take ‘em apart and line the box!’ Our new solar box got so hot, it melted the construction glue.”

Before his senior year, casting around for post-graduate ideas, Richardson reached out to a brand new WSU professor, Jacob Leachman. It was a relationship that would re-launch Richardson’s dreams about space.

Jacob Leachman and Ian Richardson discuss a machine part.
WSU professor Jacob Leachman (left) helped re-launch Ian Richardson’s dreams about space.

Finding a fit at HYPER lab

“Hearing from a student before I even made it to Pullman; that’s a professor’s dream come true,” says Jacob Leachman, head of WSU’s Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Lab.

Leachman was still at the University of Wisconsin in Madison when he began correspondence with the energetic undergrad. “I had been hired to implement a cryogenics lab at WSU in order to further cold hydrogen research. There was a big national niche that needed to be filled, and some misconceptions to overcome. Five years later, we are breaking through. Ian is a big part of that,” Leachman says.

Leachman hired Richardson to help set up his lab. They have been working together ever since.

“This work meant everything to me. Everything I did before suddenly made sense.”

Liquid hydrogen is a cryogenic substance that stabilizes at -423.67 °F. It is the fuel of choice for NASA, is used for energy storage, and is key to a number of industrial applications. Leachman and his team of researchers are devising new ways to work with hydrogen in all its forms while developing ancillary products. The lab’s lofty mission is to “efficiently advance the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of hydrogen systems for the betterment of humanity.”

As WSU’s cryogenics lab was coming together, space industry scientists were seeking associates to help test assumptions about how liquid hydrogen interacts with helium. Rocket fuel tanks are pressurized with helium. Scientists assumed some helium is absorbed back into hydrogen fuel during flight, but needed more data in order to predict fuel and engine performance. Better predictive models were required, especially with unprecedented deep space trips being planned and new, powerful, large-scale rockets going into production.

As a senior, Richardson undertook an in-depth study of one of hydrogen’s isotopes: deuterium, or heavy hydrogen. It required many hours poring over data, assembling variables, and computing. During his research, Richardson conducted an internship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) where he worked with the world-renowned equation of state (EOS) expert, Eric Lemmon, and learned the fine points of measuring thermodynamic properties.

Richardson published his deuterium EOS. Despite this success, Richardson’s advisor knew that this sort of work was not a good fit. Leachman had affectionately nicknamed his protégé “Captain Kirk”because of his adventurous nature and need to take risks. “After a year and a half Ian was miserable,” he says. “We had to come up with something he could get his hands on.”

In early 2012, HYPER Lab received funds from the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation (JCATI) to measure the densities of hydrogen-based, cryogenic fuels. Leachman tapped his student for the work. Richardson, now on track to receive a Ph.D .in material science and engineering, was in heaven.

“This assignment meant everything to me,” he says. “Everything I did before suddenly made sense.” He was able to employ an in-depth knowledge of thermodynamic property measurement while finally pursuing his passion for building and design. Richardson’s new doctoral research design scheme included high-pressure plumbing, cryogenic refrigeration, and vacuum systems, all in the service of the space industry.

Ian Richardson installs a large magnet into machinery.

“A lot of people say we’re setting a new standard. Anybody who does helium-hydrogen mixture properties now uses Ian’s work.”

Rebuilding a balance and boosting a field

The core device for Richardson’s density measurements was an older, unused magnetic suspension balance. The instrument, designed to measure the density of liquids, wasn’t built for cryogenics, so it had to be repaired and then retrofitted.

It took at least six months and hundreds of hours of labor to get the finicky machine to register anything. The balance was built in the late 90s and was no longer supported by its manufacturer, so Richardson and Leachman reached out to colleagues at WSU, University of Idaho, and elsewhere, to troubleshoot a range of problems. “

Every day for a couple of months, I thought maybe I’d never get this thing to work,” Richardson recalls. “I remember thinking: ‘Is it me? Is it the machine? What’s going on here?’”

Leachman would often give his student pep talks. Says Richardson: “Jake’s very good at motivating people and helping them see the light at the end of the tunnel. He’d say ‘You’re so close. You’re getting there.’ He’s very inspiring. He tells you what you need to hear.”

Ian Richardson holding a quartz crystal.
Quartz crystal.

The magnetic suspension balance, or densimeter, includes a mechanism reminiscent of claw arcade games – the ones where players attempt to grasp and retrieve prizes. Within an internal case is a quartz crystal with a small hook at the top, connected to a permanent magnet. Above that case is an electronic magnet that picks up the permanent magnet and quartz, and allows the machine operator to lower the quartz into the liquid being measured.

At one point, Richardson realized that the permanent magnet had lost some of its charge over the years and could no longer lift the quartz. To have one custom made would be costly and time-consuming. “I was sitting around one day and thought, ‘Hey! I don’t need to get a whole new magnet, I just need to boost the net magnetic field,’” he remembers. “So I bought a bunch of generic, 50-cent magnets online and just stuck them on. That’s when I finally got something to register.”

Now modified and refrigerated, WSU’s HYPER Lab magnetic suspension balance is the only densimeter in the world that can operate at the low, low, temperatures required for cryogenic liquid density measurements.

It’s safe to say Richardson was a shoo-in to become a NASA research fellow. Using his specially modified densimeter, a WSU-owned gas chromatograph, and computer generated models; Richardson has made a number of breakthroughs in the field of cold fuel research on behalf of WSU’s HYPER Lab in association with NASA’s Glenn Research Center. He collaborated with Thomas Blackham and other HYPER Lab researchers to develop a hydrogen-helium equation of state, and solved a tricky problem related to achieving accurate hydrogen-helium analysis.

“A lot of people say we’re setting a new standard,” says Leachman. “Anybody who does helium-hydrogen mixture properties now uses Ian’s work.”

Ian Richardson checking equipment in the HYPER lab.

“Ian is a natural leader as well as an original, creative thinker. He’d probably be good at anything if given enough time and resources.”

Fueling a clean energy infrastructure

While hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology has been around for decades and more and more commercial vehicles are now being rolled out, a comprehensive fueling infrastructure has yet to be built. Initial projections of an interstate, west coast “hydrogen highway” from southern California to Vancouver, B.C., fizzled after 2008, partly due to political shifts in energy priorities, and partly due to the giant price tag of current hydrogen fueling stations. An inability to construct cost-efficient fueling stations is the largest practical obstacle to the widespread adoption of an established, zero emissions automobile technology.

This is precisely the sort of challenge Leachman, Richardson, and their HYPER Lab colleagues are positioned to meet. HYPER Lab’s ambitious technical readiness plan includes the design and construction of every part of the hydrogen supply chain: from gleaning and refining, to designing efficient storage units, to end-user delivery.

Ian Richardson and Jacob Leachman in the lab.
Ian Riachardson (left) and WSU professor Jacob Leachman.

When the 2014 International Hydrogen Student Design Contest for transportable hydrogen fueling stations was announced, Leachman asked Richardson to lead WSU’s project team. “Ian is a natural leader as well as an original, creative thinker,” says Leachman. “He’d probably be good at anything if given enough time and resources.” Richardson’s co-designer was Ph.D. student, Jake Fisher. The team also included electrical engineers, two economists, an environmental engineer, mechanical engineers, an architect, and a public policy expert.

“It was awesome,” Richardson says. “It was the first time I led a large, diverse team like that.” Richardson thrived in the collaborative environment, where a broad range of ideas were explored and tinkered with.

He explains his process as iterative and inclusive. “We started with a very basic concept, and went down a number of paths before we hit on a truly portable, clean design.”

One of the distinguishing features of their design was its use of liquid over gaseous hydrogen. Traditional, gaseous hydrogen storage requires high-priced, high-maintenance compressors and large storage tanks. “By using the properties of the liquid itself, we can store more mass in a smaller container and we can use that liquid to help us maintain high pressure without the use of a large compressor,” Richardson explains.

The design won the competition. The design and implementation plan (PDF) includes everything from site analysis, to marketing, to safety costs, to product costs and projected returns on investment. The team’s proposed $423,000 unit comes to around 22% of the cost of current fuel stations and utilizes a standard, 40-foot shipping container on a removable chassis.

“The grand challenge is to make a unit that can take hydrogen from just about any source – collect it, purify it, store it, and use it.”

HYPER Lab recently received funds from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) to build a prototype hydrogen liquefier that will be an important addition to the design Richardson and Fisher created. In another refueling station competition bid, a HYPER Lab team is pursuing the $1 million H2 Refuel H-Prize being offered by the Department of Energy (DOE).

“The grand challenge,” Leachman points out, “is to make a unit that can take hydrogen from just about any source – collect it, purify it, store it, and use it. For example, in Washington State there is a tremendous amount of agricultural waste, which could be a source of hydrogen through gasification [rapid composting]. That’s just one of many possibilities.”

Because HYPER Lab’s fuel station vision includes a liquefaction component, stations will function both as aggregators and as dispensers of hydrogen fuel. This source-to-user model would drastically change the hydrogen fuel landscape, thanks to Leachman, Richardson and the rest of the HYPER Lab team.

Night sky full of stars.

“I’d like to go to Saturn, but I’ll start with the moon.”

Simulating the oceans of Titan and fuels at zero gravity

In the 2030s, NASA plans to deploy a mammoth rocket to fly a submarine to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. The Titan submarine will explore a large sea called Krakan Mare to discover its properties and phenomena. NASA scientists believe that the mission will further our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth and potential life elsewhere in the galaxy.

Roughly the size of the Great Lakes, Kraken Mare, like all the seas of Titan, is comprised of liquid methane and ethane. This fall, Richardson is simulating the seas and atmosphere of Titan in order to provide NASA with data to use in their predictive models and designs. His experiments are similar to his hydrogen-helium tests, which studied the absorption of helium into hydrogen. These new tests study atmospheric absorption of nitrogen into the methane/ethane seas.

“The idea is to liquefy (chill) methane and ethane in a cell and then add nitrogen gas to a set pressure similar to the pressures on Titan. Then I can measure the liquid density and test the mixture composition,” Richardson says. “From there you can provide predictive models that will inform the design and the operation of the submarine.”

Next spring, Richardson will take another look at how hydrogen interacts with helium – this time simulating zero gravity – by injecting helium bubbles into liquid hydrogen. “At the Marshall Space Flight Center they have found that more helium is dissolved into liquid hydrogen when you bubble helium directly into it,” he says. “We want to find out what happens when the droplet suspends itself as if no gravity is controlling where the liquid hydrogen is going to be. We want to know how big the helium bubbles are, or if they gather into one large bubble. A big question is whether helium bubbles could potentially impede fuel flow.”

Richardson has a keen intellect, seemingly boundless energy, and a deep desire to learn. He has already achieved many of his goals, and continues to dream big. “There’s all kinds of things I want to do, places I want to go. I’d like to go to Saturn, but I’ll start with the moon,” he says with a grin.