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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Engineering student is NASA intern

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Engineering major Alex Schnautz is one of 11 college students from throughout the country chosen as an intern this semester for the Undergraduate Student Research Project at Marshall Space Flight Center. The facility in Huntsville, Alabama, is operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Schnautz works in Environmental Control and Life Support Systems, a department that focuses on the technologies astronauts need to live a normal and healthy life in the International Space Station (ISS). His assignment relates to improving the Water Recovery System that turns wastewater (including urine, perspiration, and water from shaving and brushing teeth) into potable water.

“My part of this project is to do some experiments with photocatalytic reactors to see which commercial model is the most efficient,” he said. “Photocatalytic reactors remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the atmosphere — something that a regular filter is unable to do. It uses ultraviolet light and a catalyst to decompose the VOCs into carbon dioxide and water. While I am running these tests, I am using a gas chromatograph to see what compounds exist in the water and tell how much is there. The tests are run in modules that are the same as sections of the ISS — big cylindrical rooms.”

The modules simulate the atmosphere inside the International Space Station.

“I’m learning a lot because this is heavily focused on chemistry. I’ve taken only one chemistry course, but as an engineer, you have to be ready for anything that gets thrown your way and be ready to do a lot of research about what you don’t know.”

The 15-week NASA internship includes a $9,000 stipend.

Schnautz is from Evansville. He completed a summer internship in 2008 at SABIC Innovative Plastics in Mount Vernon, Indiana. He is a 2008-09 recipient of an Indiana Space Grant Consortium Undergraduate Scholarship for students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields.

Betty Vawter
News & Information Services
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