Space As Catalyst For Earth Innovation

(Photo: Mikhail Nilov)

A criticism often aimed at governments is that the money invested in space should be first used to solve the challenges faced on Earth. Yet, a large number of innovations we take for granted on Earth, were first developed for space. From the computer mouse, to LEDs and even memory foam, the space race has served as a catalyst for humans to flourish on Earth. 

Here Silicon Luxembourg examines innovations from the Luxembourg space ecosystem whose impacts on Earth are just as significant.

One of the most significant barriers to developing a space economy is particle radiation, highly charged particles which, when they hit organic matter or electronics, cause tremendous damage. “To humans that means cancers, damage to the central nervous system,” explained Cédric R. G. Thiry, founder, CEO and CTO at EMTD Lab space division, adding: “Today we say we are going to stay six months on Mars and we are going to build a lunar gateway around the moon. Scientifically speaking, this is a bit of a pipe dream as long as we haven’t solved the radiation problem.”

EMTD Lab tackles the problem by using AI computing to discover new materials for space radiation shielding. “We are using totally novel techniques of designing materials that have not been done before […] this process is the future of the entire Advanced Materials manufacturing segment in the next 10 years,” said Thiry. 

As an enabling technology, EMTD expects to have a major impact in space innovation in the coming years, and also on Earth. 

“We know that radiation creates cancers and we also know that radiation in the form of proton therapy and hormone therapy helps treat and cure cancer. And that’s where we have a second market that is as important as space,” said Thiry. 

Currently, treatment rooms are shielded using vast amounts of concrete and steel bars to prevent radiation from reaching other parts of hospitals. The materials that EMTD Lab’s technology discovers will therefore be used to shield treatment rooms and practitioners, saving money and resources. 

Reducing Particle Radiation In Healthcare

The firm expects to bring shielding materials to market by 2025. “Fundamentally this platform is focusing on the same objective: reducing particle radiation. The only thing we need to do is to fine tune the input parameter,” the CEO explained. 

Cédric R. G. Thiry, pictured , is founder, CEO and CTO at EMTD Lab space division
(Photo: HDP Photography Services)

In addition to healthcare, EMTD has identified other markets for its shielding technology: defence, nuclear energy and photovoltaics. The materials it develops can in future be used to shield vital power infrastructure from an electromagnetic pulse in the event of a nuclear detonation. While for the latter, EMTD Lab is closely monitoring China’s nuclear power strategy for autonomous vessels. “The technologies we develop could be used to shield miniaturised nuclear reactors,” Thiry explained. 

Investment in solar energy, an integral part of the EU Green Deal, is another potential application. Thiry reckoned that the materials developed by EMTD Lab can help extend the life cycle of solar panels in space and on Earth through optically transparent conductive layers.

IoT Air Quality Monitoring: Lunar Outpost

When Julian Cyrus co-created Lunar Outpost, the long-term goal was to contribute to the creation of permanent human habitats on the moon and other planets by developing robotic mobility platforms. Since creating the firm in 2017, they are close to that goal. In 2023, their rover will go to the lunar south pole where it will carry payloads for the likes of Nokia and MIT, collecting data and exploring the south pole. And, in 2024, they will launch a second lunar mission to the Equatorial region of the moon to investigate magnetic anomalies in the Reiner Gamma region. 

To reach this point Cyrus and his team developed technology that would generate a short-term revenue stream–an IoT air quality monitoring device for habitats, dubbed the Canary. 

“In habitats, normally you’re measuring carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxygen. When you have a lunar mission, though, you also want to measure particulate matter,” said Cyrus. While this moon dust can be useful for extracting space resources, it can also be extremely detrimental and even hazardous to astronauts and equipment.

“We were looking into that and at about the same time the city of Denver, Colorado,  where we were based, put out a request for proposal for an IoT environmental monitoring device,” recalled Cyrus. 

Julian Cyrus, pictured, is co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Lunar Outpost and president of Lunar Outpost EU. Photo: (Lunar Outpost)

Human Health Impact

The firm also partnered with the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge, installing 10 devices in local schools. Today, thousands of Canary monitors have been installed across North America, along transportation corridors or areas of wildfires, as well as by oil and gas operators to detect leaks, among other locations. 

The Canary’s key advantage over existing sensors is their low cost, their size (equivalent to a shoe box) and ability to deliver real-time, flexible data. And the potential impact of this hyper localised actionable data is significant for human health. 

Cyrus explained that when one of the schools in the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge saw how much pollution school children were exposed to in the playground, they moved the playground from one side of the property to the other.

“Because of that, playground pollution was reduced 30%,” he said. 

Terrestrial Rover

Another Earth application that Lunar Outpost is examining is HOUND, a large terrestrial rover that could serve the oil and gas industry, for example, and which is currently being tested. Based on data from the Canaries related to leaks, instead of sending out a technician, companies would send HOUND to conduct site inspections and maintenance tasks. 

“That would reduce risk to human safety, it would reduce the time it takes to get data and it would carry out operations for the group as well,” said Cyrus. 

Graphene nanotubes: OCSiAI

Not all groundbreaking aeronautic innovations are developed with space as the first application. The core market segment for OCSiAl, the world’s largest manufacturer of single-wall carbon nanotubes, is terrestrial applications. However, the implications for space are vast. 

Single wall carbon nanotubes, also known as graphene nanotubes, are nature materials that humans recently learned to synthesise. They look like flat sheets of pure graphene formed into tubes as small as 1.2-2 nanometers. Exceptionally conductive, flexible and strong, the tubes are good thermal conductors and have an electrical conductivity comparable to that of copper, while being five times lighter. 

“OCSiAl found a way to produce single-wall carbon nanotubes on an industrial scale at an affordable cost,” Alexander Khasin, lead researcher and head of the OCSiAl IP department, explained. 

Battery Life Extension

The firm launched the first graphene for industry under the brand name TUBALL, an innovation that improves the properties of materials, such as plastic, paints, coatings and rubber. What is more, when applied, the additive does not deteriorate other properties of the materials. 

Alexander Khasin, pictured left, is lead researcher and head of the OCSiAl IP department. (Photo: OCSiAl)

On Earth, graphene nanotubes are used to increase capacity in lithium ion batteries for vehicles, by accelerating silicon anode technology instead of the commonly used graphite. This innovation increases capacity from 200-250 W⋅h/kg to 350 W⋅h/kg. Graphene nanotubes are also used in the manufacture of compressed air breathing cylinder for firefighters, reducing their weight by 14%. 

While aerospace is not a strategic focus of the firm, Khasin acknowledged that OCSiAl’s graphene nanotubes have a role to play in the space economy where weight has a significant impact on cost.

“If we make a material 15% lighter, it means that it will be some thousands or millions of dollars cheaper to transport it into orbit, for example,” Khasin explained. 

Heating Parts

In the near future, graphene nanotubes will also be applied as a paint or coating to parts that need heating, in particular for de-icing in airplanes. By conducting electrical current, it is possible to heat the surface and melt ice or prevent its formation. What is more, graphene nanotubes, when chemically treated, can be used for thermal electrical effect to generate electricity from the difference in temperature. Khasin explained: “It is a possibility to use it instead or together with solar batteries to generate electricity in orbit and feed orbital devices. While on Earth, this can be used to supply energy to wearable electronics from the temperature of our body.”

Lightning Protection

In the short-term in aeronautics, Khasin said the next main applications for graphene nanotubes will be for lightning protection of airplanes and devices, and lightweight cables for substituting copper screens. “If we imagine how many meters or kilometres of cables are in state-of-the-art airplanes or space craft, we see that we can lower the weight significantly. So it is a really very important application and I hope that soon we will see it in airplanes and also in the orbital stations,” Khasin explained.

This article was first published in the Silicon Luxembourg magazine. Get your copy.

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