Space travel is considered absurd and a wastage of resources by a lot of people. Many people don’t notice that a lot of technology that we rely on today has been granted to us as a result of space exploration projects. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have reduced the cost of space travel significantly. Taking a kilogram of things into space now only costs $5,000, which was a massive $30,000 back in the time of space shuttles. Entrepreneurs are looking at this as an opportunity to explore what we can do with the resources of space like a vacuum, microgravity, unlimited solar power, and extreme temperatures. A lot of successful experiments have brought in great inventions in the field of medicine, technology, and materials science. Looking at the trends, fabrication in space may soon be a popular manufacturing method.
We shall have a look at a few applications that have explored manufacturing in space:
3D Heart Printing
Printing a 3D heart is not a new idea, but gravity becomes a hindrance when printing the hearts on earth. nScrypt, Bioficial Organs, and Techshot are the three startups companies that have come together to make a breathing 3D heart possible. They use printable bio inks and a 3D printer to make a heart tissue. Techshot came up with the idea of heart printing for which nScrypt makes the stem cell printer, and Bioficial Organs provides the ink.
To print a healthy heart tissue, bioinks need to grow for which the mix of stem cells and the nutrients has a watery consistency. This requires a support structure to cultivate a heart, but that is not needed in space. Last year, they experimented with the process using a plane that went 30,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico to simulate weightlessness. This allowed the printer to drop stem cells into a heart structure.
This was just the first step; all three companies together are planning to fly a printer up in a commercial rocket to the International Space Station by and print beating heart patches aboard by 2019.
An Unusual Cable Company
Fiber optics are considered to be one of the most cost-effective ways of digital communication. The usual fiber optic cable costs about $3,000 to $5,000 a kilo. The most expensive of these can cost up to a few million dollars a kilogram. One of the most exotic of these is called ZBLAN, that has the best communication performance. Manufacturing ZBLAN on earth is possible, but the process is very complicated. A special kind of glass is heated to 300 degrees Celsius and then thrown down in long strings from a drop tower. The length of these threads is limited by the height of the tower, and ideally, we require cables that are thousands of meters long. Connecting portions of cable lead to a significant signal loss. In addition, gravity causes sedimentation in the crystal structure which also takes part in weakening the signal.
FOMS, A South California company has secured funding to begin manufacturing exotic optic fiber cables on the ISS. It is capable of transmitting a broader spectrum than the silica fibers using less power. Space produced ZBLAN cables can make fiber optic communication much cheaper and more reliable. These can also be employed in UV surgical lasers and infrared manufacturing tools.
Most of us are not aware of the pollution that electronic manufacturing creates. We call solar panels as a source of green energy, but we forget the pollution that creating the panels adds to our planet. Silicon panels only convert 15-20% of the radiant energy into usable power, whereas Gallium Arsenide panels have an efficiency of 40%. Unfortunately, the manufacturing of these panels produces toxic arsenic byproducts.
A Gallium Arsenide semiconductor was manufactured in space vacuum back in 1990 by Alex Ignatiev, a material scientist at the University of Houston. This semiconductor had a quality thousands of times better than those made on Earth due to the presence of a vacuum. The wafer is grown in neat layers without distortions. This enhances the efficiency of the panel to as much as 60%.
Bringing these panels back to earth sounds unrealistic or even stupid. That is not the plan. Ignatiev imagines creating a gallium arsenide panel in arrays in orbit, spanning over a kilometer. These panels while revolving about the Earth in a geostationary orbit will receive sunlight at all times and reflect this energy to Earth via microwaves. Mesh-like receivers on Earth would collect this energy and diffuse it enough to avoid harm to any form of life.
Another amazing feature of the outer space is that it has the ability to break down toxic substances and disperse them harmlessly. So we would not have to worry about poisoning the Earth orbit. People imagine moving the dirty business of electronic chip manufacturing to space to save the earth.
Manufacturing in space has massive risks and exorbitant costs. The losses in case of a failed such experiment will not only be monetary but of life as well. This does not stop the world from exploring the possibilities, with a simple purpose to make life better on Earth. If we are successful, we will be printing hearts, electronic chips, or maybe even rockets in space.