The ignition of and flame spread over solid fuels is of fundamental importance to the field of fire safety. Knowing how, why, and when a material will ignite informs how dangerous a materials use may be. Luckily, there have been no fatal spacecraft based fires beyond the tragedy of the Apollo 1 mission in January 1967. And baring the February 1997 fire aboard the Russian Mir Space Station, there have been very few spacecraft fires in the decades since. This fact can be primarily attributed to the extraordinary caution exercised in design, planning, use of materials, and rigorous fire safety testing. To that end, the effects of environmental variables and material properties on the time to ignition of and opposed flow flame-spread rate over cast cylindrical thermoplastic rods has been investigated. The stated goal of this work being to assess the importance of environmental variables and experimental parameters on the time to ignition or flame spread of a common laboratory thermoplastic, and to gain a better understanding of the lower bounds of material flammability in both 1g and micro-gravity environments.
In the case of time to ignition over cast PMMA rods it is found that clear PMMA rods exhibit longer times to ignition than do black PMMA rods for similar experimental conditions. Additionally, mass flux at ignition, as determined during time to ignition experiments, does not exhibit a discernible trend as a function of external radiant heat flux given the available experimental data and corresponds very well to the theoretically predicted range of mass fluxes.
As a part of the BASS-II campaign of micro-gravity combustion experiments conducted aboard the ISS, it is seen that increasing oxygen concentration or opposed flow velocity acts to increase the flame-spread rate for all three rod diameters within the range of environmental variable values tested.
In conjunction with the BASS-II experiments, ground based experiments were conducted to investigate the effects of oxygen concentration, external radiant heating, and sample diameter on flame spread over cast black and clear PMMA rods under earth standard gravity. Similar to the micro-gravity BASS-II experiments, it was found that flame-spread rate increases with increasing oxygen concentration or eternal radiant heat flux, but increased with decreasing sample diameter. It was also found that with the use of external radiant heating, the effective LOI, or oxygen concentration at which sustained flame-spread was possible, could be reduced.
In comparing the BASS-II micro-gravity flame-spread results to those obtained in 1g, it is clear that flame-spread in micro-gravity is faster if one accounts for the fact that the flow velocities tested in both cases are near the lower bound of what are feasible or relevant flow velocities in each case. Similar trends in flame-spread rate with sample diameter, oxygen concentration, and flow velocity (beyond the natural convection break-point in 1g) were observed, but for the tested conditions, flame-spread in micro-gravity is categorically faster than in 1g.
Lastly, numerical modeling of flame-spread over cast PMMA rods as a function of ambient oxygen concentration, external radiant heating, and gravitational acceleration was undertaken with NIST’s FDS. FDS does effectively model increases in flame-spread rate with increasing externally applied radiant heating (at 21 percent oxygen by volume), as well as an increase in flame-spread rate with an increase in ambient oxygen concentration, both for 1g and micro-gravity conditions. Yet, the magnitude of the flame-spread rates calculated from these simulations is approximately an order of magnitude greater than the experimental results for both 1g or micro-gravity conditions. The exact cause of this difference is hypothesized to be attributable to a combination of the numerical mesh resolution and the solid and gas phase kinetic parameters employed. Additionally, in all cases investigated the numerical simulations correctly predicted the fact that micro-gravity flame-spread was faster than flame-spread under earth standard gravity.