Chemical engineering researcher will send experiments with foams and emulsions to International Space Station

Chemical engineer James Ferri, Ph.D. and the NASA Logo

By Rebecca E. Jones

James Ferri, Ph.D., professor of chemical and life science engineering, is part of an international team of researchers collaborating with NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to send experiments on the behavior of foams and emulsions to the International Space Station (ISS). The team’s findings will be transferred to industry for applications ranging from medicine to food science to a world of consumer goods.

Ferri came to VCU from Lafayette College in 2017. His expertise includes dispersed fluid systems, and he sees space as the ultimate microgravity laboratory for designing innovations to improve life on Earth.

“NASA sponsors research for space and research in space. My work falls in the latter category,” he said. “You can study chemistry in a whole new way when you turn off gravity, and in space, you can do that.”

To understand why turning off gravity is appealing to researchers, it’s helpful to look at how foams and emulsions are made. An emulsion is a liquid dispersed into a liquid. A foam is a gas dispersed into a liquid. Density is a key consideration in developing these combinations — it distinguishes cappuccino from cafe au lait and pudding from mousse. The density difference also tends to make foams and emulsions unstable.

“You can say, ‘Let’s study the chemical aspects of dispersed fluid systems,’” Ferri said. ”But on Earth, many of them don’t exist long enough to study well. Foams disintegrate and emulsions separate.”

Outside Earth’s gravity, however, an oil-and-vinegar salad dressing stays mixed, the head on a Guinness stout doesn’t drain — and researchers can more thoroughly study the chemical and physical principles that determine the stability of dispersed fluids. Data from these experiments will help generate better foam and emulsion dynamics models for industrial applications including safer, more stable and greener products.