Zero Gee Manufacturing at Last -
During the original design of the Space Station Freedom (1985-89) zero gee manufacturing and support of deep-space exploration vehicles were major design drivers. I know this because I was the Habitation Module Manager for Space Station Freedom. Those design requirements were lost when NASA transitioned from Space Station Freedom to the International Space Station (ISS) in 1992/1993. The capability to support Lunar/Mars exploration vehicles was lost due to budget limitations. The capability to demonstrate zero gee manufacturing was loss through poor decisions during preliminary design (the Laboratory Module sat on orbit for 67 months before its heat rejection radiators could be installed). Even after the heat rejection system was hooked up NASA limited commercial zero gee manufacturing primarily to biological research. The following article shows that NASA is finally going to support serious zero gee manufacturing research more than 24 years after the ISS was launched.
Following a decade of assembly of the International Space Station and the subsequent decade of research onboard the ISS National Lab, NASA moves boldly into the decade of results with the award of new and promising technologies for in-space manufacturing of advanced materials and products for use on Earth. With more than 21 years of continuous occupation, the International Space Station continues to demonstrate the benefits of microgravity not just for discovery but for the development of new technologies and products that have the potential to improve the quality of life on Earth.
Decades of microgravity research have laid the foundation for U.S. industry to demonstrate the unique market value of in-space manufacturing, technology advancement, and drug development with the help of NASA’s investment in dedicated transportation and research time for ISS National Laboratory investigations. To date, NASA has provided seed money in excess of $38 million for more than a dozen technologies to enable innovative companies to mature their concepts and stimulate demand for future markets. The awards are a key element of NASA’s goal to develop a robust economy in low-Earth orbit where NASA will be one of many customers.
NASA has selected additional proposals to enable U.S. businesses, institutions of higher learning, and other organizations to raise the technological readiness level of their manufacturing technologies and products, move them to market, and to propel U.S. industry toward developing a sustainable, scalable, and profitable non-NASA demand for products and services in low-Earth orbit.
Kevin Engelbert - Commercial Portfolio Manager for In Space Production Applications (InSPA) at NASA's Johnson Space Center
“NASA is excited to begin collaboration with these new partners in our efforts to enable development of a robust commercial economy in low-Earth orbit,” said Kevin Engelbert, In Space Production Applications portfolio manager. “Enabling proof-of-concept demonstrations on the International Space Station National Lab is a first step towards future production of important new materials and products that will benefit people everywhere on Earth, while strengthening U.S. leadership in advanced materials and manufacturing in space.”
NASA selected the following eight proposals submitted in response to Focus Area 1A of the NASA Research Announcement(NRA) seeking In Space Production Applications (InSPA) flight demonstrations:
Biomanufacturing of Drug-Delivery Medical Devices, Auxilium Biotechnologies, Inc., San Diego, California
Expansion of Hematopoietic Stem Cells for Clinical Application, BioServe Space Technologies and the University of Colorado, Boulder
Establishing Production of Stem Cell Therapies, Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute, Los Angeles
Fabrication of FlawlessGlass in Microgravity, Flawless Photonics, Inc., Los Altos Hills, California
Volumetric Additive Manufacturing for Organ Production, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California
Pharmaceutical In-space Laboratory (PIL), Redwire Corporation Inc., Greenville, Indiana
Biomimetic Fabrication of Multifunctional DNA-inspired Nanomaterials, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut
Semimetal-Semiconductor Composite Bulk Crystals, United Semiconductors, LLC, Los Alamitos, California
The selected proposals have a total award value of up to $21 million through fiscal year 2025, depending on milestones achieved.
Auxilium Biotechnologies, Inc. of San Diego has been selected for its proposal to develop a second-generation drug-delivery medical device to more effectively treat people who have sustained traumatic peripheral nerve injury. Auxilium’s Gen 1.0 NeuroSpan Bridge is a biomimetic nerve regeneration device that guides and accelerates nerve regeneration, eliminating the need for a patient to sacrifice a nerve in the leg to repair a nerve in the arm or face. Auxilium will use its expertise in fast, high-resolution 3D-printing to adapt its proprietary platform to a Gen 2.0 3D-print device in microgravity by adding novel drug delivery nanoparticles with the potential to substantially accelerate regeneration and improve functional outcomes for people on Earth.
BioServe Space Technologies and The University of Colorado of Boulder, Colorado, in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, ClinImmune Cell and Gene Therapy (University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus), RheumaGen, and with support from Sierra Space has been selected for their proposal to develop a specialized bioreactor that will produce large populations of Hematopoietic Stem Cells (HSCs) in microgravity to treat serious medical conditions including blood cancers (leukemias, lymphomas, multiple myeloma), blood disorders, severe immune diseases, and certain autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Expansion of HSCs in microgravity is expected to result in greater stem cell expansion with less cell differentiation than is seen in 1g. If successful, the technology may enable safe and effective cell therapy transplantation, especially in children and younger adults, where long-term bone marrow cell repopulation is critical to the patient’s lifetime health.
Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute, located in Los Angeles, in partnership with Axiom Space of Houston has been selected for proposing to use cutting-edge methods related to the production and differentiation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) on the International Space Station. Cedars-Sinai will explore in-space production of stem cells into heart, brain, and blood tissues in support of regenerative medicine uses on Earth. While stem cells and stem cell-derived tissues hold great promise for use in research and as clinical-grade therapeutic agents, safe and efficient expansion of stem cells and their derivatives continues to be a major challenge on Earth. Generating, expanding, and differentiating cells at scale in the microgravity environment of space with sufficient yields of a constant therapeutic cell product that meets FDA biologics requirements may be the answer to overcome those challenges.
Flawless Photonics, Inc. of Los Altos Hills, California, in partnership with the University of Adelaide, Axiom Space, and Visioneering Space has been selected for their proposal to develop specialized glass manufacturing hardware to process Heavy-Metal Fluoride Glasses (HMFG) in microgravity. HMFG glasses are used in the terrestrial manufacturing of exotic optical fibers and other optics applications. Without convective forces present in 1g, HMFG made in microgravity are expected to achieve the ideal amorphous microstructure during synthesis, eliminating light scattering defects that limit lasing power and transmission over long fiber lengths.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, located in Livermore, California, in partnership with Space Tango, has been selected for their proposal to adapt their terrestrial volumetric 3D bioprinting device for use in microgravity to demonstrate production of artificial cartilage tissue in space. The Volumetric Additive Manufacturing (VAM) technology is a revolutionary, ultra-rapid 3D printing method that solidifies a complete 3D structure from a photosensitive liquid resin in minutes. Because of the absence of settling and gravity-driven buoyancy and convective flows in the prepolymer, the cartilage tissues manufactured and matured in microgravity are expected to have superior structural, organizational, and mechanical properties suitable for use in long-term tissue repair and replacement.
Redwire Corporation Inc. of Greenville, Indiana, has been selected for its proposal to produce small, uniform crystals as stable seed batches for pharmaceutical and institutional research customers seeking improvements/refinements in product purification, formulation and/or delivery using crystalline formulations. Their Pharmaceutical In-space Laboratory Bio-crystal Optimization Xperiment (PIL-BOX) Dynamic Microscopy Cassette (DMC) will be capable of testing multiple crystallization conditions and providing samples to be returned to Earth for analysis. When grown in microgravity, crystals are produced more uniformly and have very low size coefficients of variation thereby allowing a more stable crystal growth, high concentration, and low viscosity parenteral formulation. The proposed innovation will provide manufacturing services to companies, institutions, and agencies pursuing uniform crystallization research.
The University of Connecticut out of Storrs, Connecticut, in partnership with Eascra Biotech of Boston, Massachusetts and Axiom Space of Houston, has been selected for their proposed biomimetic fabrication of multifunctional nanomaterials, a cutting-edge breakthrough in biomedicine that can benefit from microgravity in space to accomplish controlled self-assembly of DNA-inspired Janus base nanomaterials (JBNs). These JBNs will be used as effective, safe and stable delivery vehicles for RNA therapeutics and vaccines, as well as first-in-kind injectable scaffolds for regenerative medicine. By leveraging the benefits of microgravity, the UConn/Eascra team expects to mature in-space production of different types of JBNs with more orderly structures and higher homogeneity over what is possible using terrestrial materials, improving efficacy for mRNA therapeutics and structural integrity for cartilage tissue repair.
United Semiconductors of Los Alamitos, California, has been selected for their proposal to produce semimetal-semiconductor composite bulk crystals commonly used in electromagnetic sensors for solving challenges in the energy, high-performance computing and national security sectors. Together with teammates Axiom Space of Houston and Redwire of Greenville, Indiana, United Semiconductors intends to validate the scaling and efficacy of producing larger semimetal-semiconductor composite crystals under microgravity conditions with perfectly aligned and continuous semimetal wires embedded across the semiconductor matrix. If successful at eliminating defects found in those manufactured with terrestrial materials, United Semiconductors will have developed a processing technology for creating device-ready wafers from space-grown crystals.
In addition to the awards above, NASA made awards for a global market study and programmatic support of the InSPA portfolio:
Analyzing Global Competition and U.S. Leadership in Low-Earth Orbit Commercialization of In-Space Production Applications, The Institute for Defense Analyses Science & Technology Policy Institute, Washington, D.C.
NASA In Space Production Applications (InSPA) Portfolio Support, The Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, California
The Aerospace Corporation, headquartered in El Segundo, California, was tasked through the NASA-Wide Specialized Engineering, Evaluation and Test Services (NSEETS) contract to provide technical and business expertise and analysis in support of NASA’s evaluation of InSPA proposals. The Aerospace team will provide continued support from subject matter experts in their fields of study during planning, preparation, and execution of the demonstrations on the International Space Station, and also assist NASA with implementation of InSPA program initiatives and lifecycle assessments for selected technologies.
The Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, was tasked to help inform NASA’s strategy and plans for enabling in-space manufacturing by studying global competition and the potential impact on U.S. leadership in key technology areas. IDA’s Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) will analyze the current and future capabilities, investments, and policies of space-faring nations related to on-orbit manufacturing of advanced materials and products to better inform the priorities for U.S. Government investments in InSPA towards developing a commercial low-Earth Orbit economy.
I fully support the proposed efforts, but these should have happened years ago. Industry has tried several times to circumvent NASA and do serious on-orbit manufacturing, but political considerations always killed the effort. It appears that now the playing field is finally starting to change for the better.
Cheaper hydrogen fuel cell could mean better green energy options-
The fuel cell being tested in the lab. Credit: Imperial College London
Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen to electricity with water vapor as the only by-product, making them an attractive green alternative for portable power, particularly for vehicles.
However, their widespread use has been hampered in part by the cost of one of the primary components. To facilitate the reaction that produces the electricity, the fuel cells rely on a catalyst made of platinum, which is expensive and scarce.
Now, a European team led by Imperial College London researchers has created a catalyst using only iron, carbon, and nitrogen—materials that are cheap and readily available—and shown that it can be used to operate a fuel cell at high power. Their results are published today in Nature Catalysis.
Lead researcher Professor Anthony Kucernak, from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, said: "Currently, around 60% of the cost of a single fuel cell is the platinum for the catalyst. To make fuel cells a real viable alternative to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, for example, we need to bring that cost down.
"Our cheaper catalyst design should make this a reality, and allow deployment of significantly more renewable energy systems that use hydrogen as fuel, ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions and putting the world on a path to net-zero emissions."
The team's innovation was to produce a catalyst where all the iron was dispersed as single atoms within an electrically conducting carbon matrix. Single-atom iron has different chemical properties than bulk iron, where all the atoms are clustered together, making it more reactive.
These properties mean the iron boosts the reactions needed in the fuel cell, acting as a good substitute for platinum. In lab tests, the team showed that a single-atom iron catalyst has performance approaching that of platinum-based catalysts in a real fuel cell system.
As well as producing a cheaper catalyst for fuel cells, the method the team developed to create could be adapted for other catalysts for other processes, such as chemical reactions using atmospheric oxygen as a reactant instead of expensive chemical oxidants, and in the treatment of wastewater using air to remove harmful contaminants.
First author Dr. Asad Mehmood, from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, said: "We have developed a new approach to make a range of 'single atom' catalysts that offer an opportunity to allow a range of new chemical and electrochemical processes. Specifically, we used a unique synthetic method, called transmetallation, to avoid forming iron clusters during synthesis. This process should be beneficial to other scientists looking to prepare a similar type of catalyst."
The team collaborated with UK fuel cell catalyst manufacturer Johnson Matthey to test the catalyst in appropriate systems and hope to scale up their new catalyst so it can be used in commercial fuel cells. In the meantime, they are working to improve the stability of the catalyst, so it matches platinum in durability as well as performance.
This promises a major breakthrough in the economics of renewable energy. Low cost hydrogen and ammonia fuel cells will allow fossil-fuel-free buses, long-haul trucks, ships, and small to medium aircraft. This really could be a game-changer.
Thanks for Reading and Stay Safe,