Why Space? The Opportunity for Materials Science and Innovation

The Wake Shield Facility is a free-flying research and development facility  designed to use the pure vacuum of space to conduct scientific research in the development of new materials © NASA
The Wake Shield Facility is a free-flying research and development facility designed to use the pure vacuum of space to conduct scientific research in the development of new materials

Professor Manus Hayne from Lancaster University has outlined the opportunities for materials science in Space as part of a position paper from the Why Space? Working Group.

The paper entitled "Why Space? The Opportunity for Materials Science and Innovation" and produced with the assistance of the Satellite Applications Catapult, is the culmination of over a year of engagement with the Space and materials communities and was enabled by support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

By studying the effects of gravity on the properties and behaviour of fluid and solid systems, scientists are developing new manipulation strategies and materials in Space with properties or functionalities that cannot be achieved in normal gravity conditions. This will inform the development of the next generation of advanced materials with superior physicochemical properties to support future Space exploration as well as revolutionising established processes on Earth, including design and manufacturing.

Professor Hayne authored a chapter for the paper entitled “Compound semiconductor manufacturing and use in space”.

He has 35 years of experience in compound semiconductor physics and devices, is a co-inventor on several patents and patent applications related to ULTRARAM™ memory technology, vertical cavity surface-emitting lasers, single photon sources and novel digital logic devices. He is also the co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of the Lancaster University spinout company Quinas Technology Ltd.

He and his team are actively building links between the compound semiconductor and space communities, for example with Frazer-Nash Consultancy, CAES and Open Cosmos.

Professor Hayne said: “There are presently UK strategic priorities that provide research and innovation opportunities in space, in energy and in semiconductors. These uniquely combine in the use of compound semiconductors in space applications. The UK Semiconductor Strategy has a particular focus on compound semiconductors, which is an area of UK strength.

“While the development of the technology must clearly be terrestrial, space relevant characteristics must be considered in the design and implementation, and properties and performance validated in space to reach high technology readiness levels and commercial viability.”

The global use of advanced materials, including composites and alloys, in Space industry technologies, from launch vehicles to satellites, amounts to approximately £1.2 billion annually. In line with the growth trajectories of the Space sector over the next decade, the value of advanced materials in the Space industry will expand threefold, reaching an estimated £4 billion by the year 2035.

Additionally emerging microgravity research and orbital engineering platforms are poised to open new opportunities for materials R&D in Space. The value of R&D, utilising orbital platforms, to develop next-generation semiconductor materials alone, could reach a value of £150-300 million each year, by the early 2030s according to McKinsey & Company.

Dr Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency said: “Advanced materials are the building blocks of an innovative society, and the space sector can make a significant contribution by developing, researching and testing new materials using the unique environment of microgravity. This already happens on the International Space Station, and there are huge opportunities for the UK associated with future space stations as well as dedicated satellites and spacecraft.

“This important paper explores these opportunities and considers a number of areas where government, academia and various industrial sectors can work together to make the most of them.”

The UK’s Space economy is enjoying rapid growth and actively developing its own launch capabilities. Building on the UK’s world-leading expertise in materials science and related R&D, this position paper provides a cohesive case for funders on the opportunity for discovery and applied level research through involvement with Space. It aims to support exploration roadmaps from leaders in agencies, industry and academia, to better understand the possibilities for new research and innovation, and how the UK will secure its targeted share of the market.

Dr Philip Carvil, Coordinator of the working group for the paper, said: “With the increased capacity in Space access, through the ongoing development of a robust Space launch and Space provider ecosystem, there is the opportunity to bring the expertise in the materials community closer to the opportunity that the Space environment provides.”

John Abbott, CEO of the Satellite Applications Catapult said: “The development of in-orbit processing of materials and the manufacture of new products, many of which simply cannot be made on Earth, will create significant opportunities for UK organisations at home and in the global economy.

“Working alongside other agencies, we are bringing industry and academia together to advance the development of materials science in orbit and grow this emerging sector. We are positioning the UK as a world-leader in the field, and this is exactly the type of high-risk, high-reward area in which the Catapults excel.”

The paper is now available to download here.

To celebrate the launch, a community event will take place on the 15 March 2024 at the Henry Royce Institute in Manchester, UK – the UK’s National institute for Advanced Materials Research and Innovation. This event will bring together materials scientists, experts in Space access and in-orbit manufacturing, and representatives from a range of industry sectors to discuss the paper, its recommendations and the next steps.

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