SPECIAL REPORT: Tyndall's groundbreaking space technologies could be worth €1bn to economy

Eoin English visits the home of the recently launched European Space Agency (ESA) Space Solutions Centre Ireland at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork where innovative work is being done. 

Groundbreaking Tyndall projects out of this world

‘WHEN the average person thinks of the word space, they think — look up. When I hear the word space, I think — look down.”

That is one of the guiding philosophies of Kieran Drain, chief executive of the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, home to the recently launched European Space Agency (ESA) Space Solutions Centre Ireland.

Tyndall, renowned for its groundbreaking research on computer chips, micro-electronics, nanotechnology, and photonics, hopes to use the centre as a vehicle to boldly go where few in Ireland have gone before — by finding commercial applications on Earth for products and technologies developed by Irish companies for the European space programme.

The sector could be worth up to €1bn to the Irish economy within a few years.

“When you think about microelectronics in today’s world, it doesn’t sit in a box on your desk anymore,” Mr Drain said. “Microelectronics, ICT, touches all aspects of our lives.

The integration of electronics into everything that we interface with means that microelectronics really touches the entire economy.

“My vision is how do we at Tyndall maximise our impact on the national economy — and this is an opportunity to work outside the traditional microelectronics space.”

Space is the newest of several growth vectors for Tyndall. The Space Solutions Centre, led by Tyndall and involving a partnership with Athlone Institute of Technology, Maynooth University, and Irish Maritime and Energy Research Cluster, is the 14th ESA Business Incubation Centre (BIC) in Europe.

David Gibbons, an electronics engineer and former rocket scientist, heads up Tyndall’s ESA Space Solutions Centre. Picture: Jim Coughlan

Funded by ESA and Enterprise Ireland, and launched two weeks ago with an invitation to Irish start-ups that use space technology to apply for funding and support, it has already been approached by two companies, with at least two more proposals under consideration.

Ultimately, each of the 25 start-ups that successfully apply will receive €50,000 in seed funding, along with expert technical assistance and opportunities to access other funding streams.

The centre will also offer 10 rounds of €40,000 funding to support the transfer of technology for established companies that want to spin-out their products. Companies can work from any of the four host institutions.

Mr Drain said there is huge potential in the sector.

Nasa figures estimate the space industry is worth up to $350bn, but predicts the figure will soar to $600bn-plus by 2020.

In Ireland, space-related activity undertaken by around 50 companies was worth about €76m last year. That’s expected to double within three years to over 90 firms doing some €150m worth of business by 2020.

Tyndall hopes the establishment of the ESA BIC will see it working with up to 20 of those new businesses.

“A young company in some senses is like a young plant — you need to put it in the right soil,” said Mr Drain. “And what the four partners in the BIC, from the marine environment in IMERC, to microelectronics in Tyndall, the geo-computational expertise from Maynooth, and materials processing in Athlone — we have the right soil for any company.

“We can put those young companies into that pot, have them grow, and we have a trusting partnership that will transplant those plants, those young companies, through the course of their life, because they need different supports at different stages to get them to become strong Irish companies.”

The potential is underlined by the fact that for every $1 invested in space- related work by an ESA member state, there is an $8 return to that member state, said Mr Drain.

“There are enormous growth opportunities. This incubator will, for the first time, pull those Irish firms involved in space-related research together and will allow Ireland maximise its participation in the European space programme.”

Electronics engineer and former rocket scientist David Gibbons, who worked for a company which helped make components for the massive engines and thrusters on Europe’s heavy-lifting Ariane 5 rocket, heads up the ESA Space Solutions Centre at Tyndall.

“This is not about putting things into space. It’s about taking the technology that’s been developed for space and using it in a commercial downstream application to make good products, good companies, and create more enterprise, more jobs, more business,” he said.

“If you look around, almost everything you see has been affected by a space programme — Lycra, high-vis materials on cycling jackets — these are materials which were created for the space industry.

“The downstream applications are enormous — from your mobile phone to your cycling gear.”

A lab at the Tyndall National Institute

Mr Gibbons has been there and done that. He worked for a company which developed diodes for high frequency communications in space. The same technology was later adapted into frequency multipliers to make a frequency extender product, which is now used in collision-avoidance radar systems for cars.

These kinds of opportunities are set to increase given the commercialisation of space, led by SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk, he said.

Space is no longer the preserve of countries like the US, China, and Russia, while the size of satellites is decreasing from the size of trucks to nano-satellites the size of a hat-box.

“There is going to be a plethora of these nano-sats in orbit and the amount of data that’s going to come from space is set to increase ten-fold,” said Mr Gibbons.

Based on his own experience, he said commercial companies involved in the sector spend about 20% of their time on space-related work, while the rest is spent exploring terrestrial commercial applications.

“The space part is a very small part of your business but it has a huge effect on the rest of it,” he said.

“If someone wants to put something into space, my message to those guys is yes, do spin into space.”

From keeping astronauts safe to aiding cancer patients

Technology developed by Tyndall to monitor an astronaut’s exposure to radiation in space is helping doctors monitor the treatment of cancer patients.

The technology’s journey from the International Space Station to a medical setting on Earth is a perfect example of how space-related research can be spun out for commercial applications to ultimately help thousands of people.

The journey started in the early 2000s when the European Space Agency (ESA) asked Tyndall to help develop devices to monitor the levels of radiation bombarding the complex electronics inside its satellites.

A call then came through from a company in the US which wanted to explore the technology’s potential for monitoring the radiation doses being given to cancer patients.

Tyndall partnered with the company, tweaked the technology for use in a clinical setting, and developed two products which were then mass-produced.

Tyndall’s Dr Aleksandar Jaksic, who led the team of Irish researchers which collaborated with space research labs in Germany, Finland, and Austria on the astronaut radiation monitoring device, said it was great to see an ESA product finding a commercial application on Earth.

Dr Aleksandar Jaksic working at the automated wafer prober at the Tyndall National Institute, Cork. ‘It doesn’t get more exotic than seeing your device on the space station with astronauts, and there are only a few hundred astronauts to have left Earth.’ Picture: Jim Coughlan

After helping to devise the medical radiation monitor, he and his team continued their work on the astronaut monitor to replace previous radiation detectors which only revealed how much radiation exposure an astronaut has received after their return to Earth.

They were initially asked to produce just one part of the device (RADFETs, or radiation-sensing field effect transistors) but a lack of suitable sensors on the market meant Tyndall’s researchers were subsequently asked to develop and produce two additional parts of the unit — the thin diode and thick diode detectors.

Last year, they announced that they had developed a breakthrough wearable system which can measure radiation in real-time and instantly warn astronauts on board the International Space Station of increased and dangerous levels, particularly from dangerous solar flare events.

The system consists of a phone-sized mobile unit which is worn in a pouch on an astronaut’s body, and a personal storage device, which serves as a docking station to recharge the mobile unit, download data and transmit it back to Earth.

Dr Jaksic’s team worked with Tyndall’s semiconductor fabrication plant to develop, fabricate, and supply three of the four specialised radiation sensors for the mobile unit. Each sensor covers a different type or spectrum of radiation.

The package has been described by space experts as the most comprehensive system ever developed for personal radiation dosimetry.

The mobile unit was launched into space onboard the Soyuz spacecraft last year for testing onboard the International Space Station, and it was deployed permanently in June.

Seeing the device being worn by astronauts on the International Space Station was incredible, said Dr Jaksic.

Astronauts wear radiation monitors developed by Tyndall to keep them safe in space. Picture: Nasa/AP

But he said he drew more personal satisfaction from the knowledge that the technology is helping cancer patients.

“It doesn’t get more exotic than seeing your device on the space station with astronauts, and there are only a few hundred astronauts to have left Earth,” said Dr Jaksic.

“On the other hand, this cancer application is absolutely amazing. This is the crown of all researchers’ careers.”

CERN also bought 2,000 RADFETs to monitor radiation along its 27km long Large Hadron Collider accelerator ring in Geneva, which discovered the Higgs Boson — the so-called God Particle.

Dr Jaksic said he and his team are now trying to increase the monitor’s sensitivity to explore other terrestrial applications.

“For example, in the US, there are 1.5m new cancer patients diagnosed every year, and 75m radiological procedures performed,” he said.

“These lower dose levels need to be monitored, as well as daily dose radiation, especially in regions where there have been radiation accidents, such as Fukushima.

“We hope to develop a device sensitive enough to be worn as a patch so radiation workers, and the general population, can monitor their exposure to radiation.”

It has applications for people working in the nuclear industry, or for anyone working around equipment which emits radiation in a medical or industrial setting.

“Long term, we are looking at deep-space missions to the outer reaches of the solar system,” he said.

“We have one eye on equipment monitoring, and one eye on personal monitoring.”

Carmel Murphy, a senior process technician, with the electron beam evaporator at Tyndall. Picture: Jim Coughlan

ESA relationship still growing two decades later

TYNDALL project manager Finbarr Waldron has seen the institute’s relationship with the European Space Agency (ESA) develop over the last two decades. Now he’s spearheading an effort to deepen it.

As head of its Components and Reliability Lab, which spends almost 60% of its time on ESA testing work, Mr Waldron is overseeing a detailed high-level accreditation process which should make the Cork lab the only space analytical lab in Europe accredited under this quality system.

It is hoped the ISO 17025 accreditation process will be complete by the end of the year and that it will result in the Tyndall facility undertaking more ESA testing work over the coming years.

Finbarr Waldron: ‘Our lab has a range of ovens and chambers which can simulate extremes of temperatures from -50 to 150C, and intense humidity.’ Picture: Jim Coughlan

Tyndall landed its first contract with ESA in 1988. Since then, it has worked with the agency on a core contract as a microelectronics technology support laboratory, conducting component analysis and rigorous testing procedures for space-bound technology and components which have been outsourced by ESA’s own ESTEC testing facility in the Netherlands.

It is highly demanding and highly regulated work.

As ESA continues to outsource its component analysis work from ESTEC, the new accreditation being pursued by Tyndall would further improve its status as a preferred partner lab for ESA and position it as a leader in the field of component analysis for space-related devices.

Mr Waldron said ESA expects space-bound components to have excellent reliability and longevity, with the ability to withstand hazards found in space such as extremes of temperature and radiation, as well as the physical shock and vibrations of the launch process.

“Anything that goes into space on a satellite or a spacecraft has to be a qualified component,” said Mr Waldron.

“Those components are manufactured and sourced in Europe, where possible, and supplied to ESA.

“These components are then sent to the ESA lab to be torn down and tested to ensure they are up to spec.

“Some of the work is done internally at ESA’s test lab in the Netherlands, but some is outsourced to places like Tyndall.

“The motivation behind all of that is if you have a satellite in space and if something goes wrong, it’s either extremely expensive or impossible to fix it.

“So they will invest very, very heavily upfront in making sure that the quality is absolute before it ever goes up there.

“They spend a large part of their budget on reliance and quality assessment before anything is put into space.”

The researchers in Mr Waldron’s lab work with ESA to analyse the components that are manufactured by leading European space technology companies, disassembling them in a structured manner to examine the quality of materials used, their compliance with space standards, and their fitness for launch and deployment in the harsh environment of space.

“Our lab has a range of ovens and chambers which can simulate extremes of temperatures from -50 to 150C, and intense humidity,” said Mr Waldron.

“We also have instruments which can subject components to thousands of cycles of vibration and shock.”

Mr Waldron said the researchers aren’t always aware of where the components they test are bound. “But sometime you do.”

He said he is particularly pleased they worked on an aspect of ESA’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury, due to launch in April 2018.

“There was a particular component on the probe’s solar array which had to withstand direct sunlight for a very long time, and we did some of the high temperature testing on that,” said Mr Waldron.

Ultra-strong coatings to help study the sun

Irish company ENBIO has developed two ultra-strong heat-shield coatings to protect the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter spacecraft which is due to launch on its unprecedented close-up study of the sun in 2018.

ESA’s next-generation sun explorer, Solar Orbiter, which will be launched in 2018 to explore the sun’s realm. Its mission critical heat-shield will be coated in a hi-tech

thermal protection system developed by Irish company ENBIO.

The mission-critical coatings — one to protect the probe’s sun-facing heat-shield and the other to protect its 10 key instruments — will have to withstand constant searing heat of up to 600C and intense radiation as it spends up to three years orbiting just 42 million kilometers from the sun, a quarter of the distance from the star to Earth.

ENBIO, which is based in the Alpha Innovation Hub in Dublin City University, has been collaborating with ESA and Airbus Defence and Space on development of a thermal protection system for the Solar Orbiter since 2011. It also opened an ESA-funded research centre in Clonmel, to work specifically on the space programme.

The key focus of the research was to develop a coating which would maintain its strength and integrity despite years of exposure to extreme heat, infra-red, and ultraviolet radiation, while at the same not shedding material or outgassing vapour, which would risk contaminating Solar Orbiter’s highly sensitive optical instruments.

Using their patented coating technique, CoBlast, which was originally developed for the medical sector to coat titanium implants with artificial bone — ENBIO’s researchers created SolarBlack — a material which will be applied using the CoBlast technique to the outermost titanium sheet of Solar Orbiter’s multi-layered heat-shield.

Such was the success of this coating, the ESA also asked ENBIO to develop another coating to protect other areas of the probe. It developed SolarWhite, which is undergoing ageing tests at ESA’s technical centre in the Netherlands.

Both coatings, which will be applied to the probe using the CoBlast technique, broke ESA records for the fastest to move from concept to mission-ready.

ENBIO’s work on the space programme has led to commercial applications which could revolutionise tyre making and elements of the automotive industry’s production processes.

ENBIO is in the closing stages of contract negotiations with a leading tyre company which is set to use the CoBlast technique in its tyre moulding process.

The structural and thermal model of the Solar Orbiter heat shield. Picture: Airbus Defence and Space

ENBIO’s international business development manager, Dr Kevin O’Neill, a materials engineering graduate of UCD, said working on the space programme gave the company a much better understanding of various coating processes which led to these exciting commercial opportunities on Earth.

“When we tell people we are working with ESA on mission-critical space missions, peoples’ eyes light up,” he said. “Working with ESA is a great talking point for us. It helps opens doors, and helps us to talk to really big companies.”

Hi-tech light may be part of space mission

A hi-tech light being developed at Tyndall could help unlock the secrets of the universe as part of an ambitious European Space Agency (ESA) mission scheduled for launch in 2029.

Peter Parbrook, professor of nitride materials at UCC and a researcher at Tyndall, is working on a complex long-term project to develop a highly specialised ultra- violet light emitting diode (LED) which is being considered for use as part of an ESA project to detect space gravitational waves — one of the most elusive phenomena in the galaxy.

Gravitational waves, first proposed by Albert Einstein, are ripples in the fabric of space-time generated by some of the most powerful astrophysical events such as exploding stars and collisions of two black holes at the centres of galaxies.

The waves travel at the speed of light through the universe and are described by experts as ‘cosmic messengers’ which allow exploration of the dark side of the universe.

They were detected last year by the ground-based Advanced Ligo facility in the US using a technique known as laser interferometry.

The facility, which fires highly sensitive lasers at mirrors up to 4km apart, sensed the fantastically small disturbances generated by a gravitational wave, which was created from the merger of two black holes more than 1bn light-years away.

An atom measures about 100 picometres. Prof Parbrook said the disturbance detected by Ligo’s lasers measured one picometre — one trillionth of a metre.

The discovery opens up a completely new way to do astronomy, allowing scientists to probe previously impenetrable regions of the cosmos and to test some of the fundamental ideas behind general relativity — Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Peter Parbrook, who works in nitride materials and devices, at the MOVPE Reactor in Tyndall. Picture: Jim Coughlan

However, scientists have been working since the 1980s on a system to detect gravitational waves from orbit using a system called Lisa — the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

A panel of experts recommended the space-borne detector project be fast-tracked, with its launch date brought forward from 2034 to 2029.

The idea is to fly a network of satellites in orbit around the sun, separated by a few million kilometres, with lasers fired between the spacecraft to sense the ripples in space-time generated by much more massive objects than the black holes seen by Ligo.

Lisa would target monster black holes, millions of times the mass of our sun, but needs highly specialised lasers to work. That’s where Prof Parbrook comes in.

“We are trying to make LEDs for this mission to emit UV light at very short wave-length. The more aluminium you add, the lower the wave-length which makes it more precise, but the more difficult it is to make,” he said.

He has already proved the technology concept to ESA and is focusing on reducing the wave-length of light emitted by the LEDs, while at the same time ensuring they last longer than a few hours.

The technology also has applications in the water purification process on Earth.

“If you use a chemical treatment, eventually bugs tend to find a way around the chemical treatment,” Prof Parbrook said.

“If you have any population of animal or bacteria, with a short generational lifetime, then eventually it builds up a resistance, like antibiotic resistance, to the chemical treatment process.

“One of the advantages of shining a UV light through water is that you disrupt the DNA of the bugs in an unpredictable manner; it breaks bonds randomly. It is then very difficult for any bug to protect itself from that.”

Exploring the line-up for Space Week

A new national initiative to celebrate space, maths, and engineering is set to take place next week.

Dozens of events have been arranged across the country as part of Ireland’s first Space Week to encourage people to explore how the power of critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and maths can shape our understanding of life on Earth and our place in the universe.

Stargazing, astronomy talks, and space-related workshops are among the many free events to choose from across October 3-8.

The Whirlpool Galaxy. Many space-related talks and activities will be on offer across Space Week, which will run from October 3-8.

Schools will take part in a lunar photography project involving CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory’s TARA telescope network.

Professor Mark McCaughrean, the senior science advisor in the directorate of science at the European Space Agency, and who has worked at the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Centre, will speak about space-research and business opportunities at Dunsink Observatory on October 4.

Biomedical engineering PhD, Dr Marc Ó Griofa, from Meath, will talk about how he lived as an aquanaut, 20m under the Atlantic Ocean, as part of Nasa’s extreme environment mission operations (NEEMO) project.

Limerick entrepreneur Cyril Bennis and Nasa astronaut Colonel Al Worden will speak at Dream Big, a family event for space enthusiasts on October 5 at Limerick IT’s Millennium Theatre.

Meanwhile, Cork Airport will host an exhibition of stunning images of Ireland from space.

Space Week is being organised by CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory, in association with Science Foundation Ireland and the European Space Education Resource Office Ireland.


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