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Are space-built supermaterials a secret weapon against climate change?

‘Earth is a terrible place to make things,’ according to aerospace engineer Andrew Bacon. Here’s how low gravity provides the unique conditions to build high-performance materials which may arm us against climate change.

Finding ways of building sustainable technologies in a sustainable way is a requirement which perpetually limits our fight against climate change. Here’s one ingenious (albeit strange) solution to this problem.

In our endeavours to replace fossil fuels with electric batteries, or to control the energy intensive flow of digital data flowing across continents, we’ve so far come up short. Mining for vital metals like cobalt and nickel is anything but green, and blockchain technology is gobbling up energy at the rate of entire countries.

So, where on Earth do we go from here? Apparently, we don’t.

According to a UK aerospace start-up called Space Forge, the answer to creating many of the materials we need to really push our green tech revolution is to build outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Come again?

The idea is to use what are effectively mini factories concealed within satellites – and controlled by robotics. These will reportedly be returnable to specific coordinates on Earth, which would negate emissions typically associated with transportation.

Seems a bit of a stretch, doesn’t it? Well, let us convince you.

Space is said to offer several instant advantages when it comes to manufacturing. Low gravity levels, combined with the fact it’s almost a perfect vacuum means that achieving very high and very low temperatures to produce metals, for example, requires far less energy.

‘Because there’s no air, effectively, in space, it’s very easy to heat something up to a really high temperature,’ says company CEO Andrew Bacon. ‘Or if you point your satellite away from the sun and away from the Earth, you can cool down to about 10 degrees above absolute zero.’

Some such ‘supermaterials’ have already been produced on the International Space Station, including a fibre-optic cable which can translate 100 times faster data than silica. Without the natural impurities of Earth, semiconductors built in space are said to be 20% more effective too.

When it comes to developing alloys – which are vital components for improving aircraft turbines – lower levels of gravity in space mean metal components won’t naturally be pulled away from one another, which is a stubborn issue in regular production. In theory, this method could allow us to improve both their quality and quantity.

These same conditions make space an ideal place to create electric batteries, and also metal bolts stronger than what can be achieved on Earth. As wind turbines are always held together in separate pieces, we could up the ante with bigger and more efficient models in the future too.

Before these floating conveyer belts go into production, as you’d expect, there are plenty of tests and logistical queries that need sating. What we do know, given its MO is to aid the planet, is that Space Forge is aiming to go entirely carbon negative with all systems.

Concluding on his company’s mission, Bacon declared: ‘The new round of funding ($10.2m) will support the first launches. It’s not easy to do, but I think we’ve got a solid plan.’

Whether this can have the level of impact required is up for debate, but one thing’s for sure. The next industrial revolution certainly sounds a whole lot cleaner.