The idea to use innovative rocket technology that uses asteroid metal as fuel to achieve industrial-scale transport of mined asteroid material has won the 2017 Singularity University Global Impact Challenge (GIC) Southern Africa edition competition.
The US-based Singularity University is dedicated to leveraging technologies for the benefit of humanity and hosts the GICs in countries worldwide.
The GICs are yearly competitions held in partnership with sponsor organisations worldwide. “They call for entrepreneurs, leaders, scientists and engineers with the most innovative ideas for moonshot innovations and startups that can be scaled up and . . . positively impact on a billion people in ten years,” explains Singularity University Johannesburg chapter co-head Mic Mann.
This was South Africa’s second year hosting the Southern Africa GIC, which incorporated the theme ‘climate change’. The finalists’ concepts focused on asteroid mining, trip exchanges for cargo to reduce wasteful journeys of transport trucks, development of cheaper batteries to reduce energy storage costs, beneficiation of plastic waste to sustainable and clean biofuel and the development and use of solar-powered airships
Mechanical engineer and PhD graduate Jonathan Lun’s idea for the challenge was chosen the winner at the GIC awards ceremony, in Johannesburg, last month.H
is idea is to use an innovative rocket technology, known as a vacuum arc thruster, which consumes asteroid metal as fuel to achieve industrial- scale transport of mined asteroid material.
“The thruster works like a spark plug or arc welder by creating an electric arc between two electrodes in the vacuum of space. The cathode electrode then vaporises and is converted into a hot plasma jet, producing a small but high-performing jet of thrust,” Lun says.
He notes that small prototypes have been successfully demonstrated and measured in laboratories in the US, Japan, Germany and South Africa, as well as in early space flight demonstrations, the most recent ones occurring in 2015 and 2016.
The University of the Witwatersrand, the South African National Space Agency and the National Research Foundation supported and funded Lun’s PhD research to build several plasma thrusters in the lab and improve the current thruster.He
says the technology is well suited to small, low-cost satellites, owing to its simplicity and compact size, but that the best approach would be “to mature the technology first for small satellites and then gradually scale it up to larger and more complex platforms”.
Once other asteroid mining technologies – such as energy, materials processing, large-scale manufacturing and robotics – have matured, large-scale vacuum arc thruster technology will be ready for implementation,” he says.
While there are technical hurdles to overcome, the basic technology is proven and shows great potential, and the mining of asteroids for their metals could also assist in alleviating the demand for the earth’s mineral and metal resources, Lun says.
“The world has only a few decades of reserves left for a variety of metals. We rely on metals. . . . People are starting to consider asteroid mining as the only sustainable way of obtaining new metal resources,” he points out.
Lun is currently a senior engineer at Denel Spaceteq, which deals with the design, manufacture and testing of earth observation satellites for the South African government.
As part of his prize, Lun will participate in Singularity University’s nine-week Global Solutions Programme (GSP) at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s research park, in Silicon Valley, to develop his idea.
“Singularity University is a strategic place to learn and brainstorm with others how to leverage twenty-first century thinking and technologies to solve the world’s biggest problems,” he says.
Mann highlights that there is significant talent in South Africa, with ideas that need to be encouraged to have an impact in South Africa and in the world.
He adds that innovation could enable South Africa to leapfrog to the latest technologies, stressing that GICs are crucial for the future of innovation in the country.
Therefore, SingularityU South Africa, for the first time in Africa, will also host the SingularityU South Africa Summit in August in Midrand, Gauteng, where Singularity University faculty and leading international and local experts in exponential technology will provide paradigm-shifting learning experiences for South Africans about the future, Mann says.