The Irish Centre for Composites Research (IComp) has been awarded a €240,000 research project with the European Space Agency (ESA), to develop ways to support a more sustainable space environment as well as a more sustainable space industry. The project, called ‘Demisable Bio-Composite Materials’, will develop a new bio-composite material for space applications as part of the ESA’s Clean Space initiative. A key element of the the new 18-month project – led by Dr Walter Stanley, lecturer in Mechanical, Aeronautical, and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Limerick – will be the development of green technologies as a means of complying with environmental legislation. IComp was established in 2010 under the Enterprise Ireland/IDA Technology Centre initiative. It is hosted by the University of Limerick, which is the leading composites research establishment in Ireland, working in partnership with University College Dublin. The funding came about after IComp successfully bid for a contract through the ESA’s Clean Space initiative. Dr Norah Patten, communications and outreach manager at IComp, explained that Ireland's membership of the ESA permits Irish companies and research teams to bid for contract development work in a range of space programmes. “ESA has a number of calls under different topics,” she said. “As a member state of ESA, Ireland pays in to projects and certain calls that ESA puts out. Ireland has to pay in to calls so that Irish companies and universities are eligible to apply for relevant funding pots. Under this call, we could apply because of the fact that the Irish Government pays in to this topic. “We have a post-doctoral researcher in IComp, Dr Dipa Roy, and her expertise is in bio-composites,” Patten explained. “Dr Roy is well published in the area and she has years of experience of working with bio-composites. That was the link with this call that ensured that IComp had the expertise needed to do what was required.” The research will help develop new materials for space applications to further reduce the environmental challenges associated with space exploration. The goal is to move toward a life-cycle that is capable of being continued with minimum long-term effect on the environment.

Clean Space Initiative

The ESA is focusing on the environmental impacts of its activities, both on Earth and in space, and is committed to ensuring high environmental standards for European citizens. The Clean Space initiative seeks to expand ESA’s knowledge of its own environmental impacts; this involves assessing the impacts of ESA programmes with a view to adopting an eco-friendly approach, as a way of minimising these impacts in future. Clean Space, which is made up of four principal parts, has been introduced across the ESA’s technology programme. One of these parts is the development of green technologies. According to the ESA, green technologies should:
  • Allow for the reduction of energy consumed during the life cycle of a space mission;
  • Enable the use of resources in a more sustainable way;
  • Limit and control the use of harmful substances for human health and biodiversity;
  • Adopt a proactive approach towards environmental legislation and manage the residual waste and polluting substances resulting from space activities.
Clean Space has been running since 2012 and its aim is to assess the sustainability and eco-design of the four branches ESA has identified. Patten explained that IComp’s research will see the company contributing to the initiative in the area of green technology in particular. “The ESA has identified four main branches of the Clean Space initiative. The four branches are eco-design, green technologies, space debris mitigation and the fourth is technology for space debris mitigation. “IComp will be fitting in under branch two, which is green technologies, looking at the environmental impact of current activities and also then to develop new and green technologies as a means of mitigating the impacts and complying with environmental legislation,” said Patten. Demisability, the ability of a material to disintegrate during an atmospheric re-entry, is imperative to IComp’s research project. Carbon fibres when used in spacecraft could pose a risk upon atmospheric entry. Due to their intractability, the fibres have limited demisability and spacecraft structural parts may survive the atmospheric entry (or re-entry) and reach the ground with an associated casualty risk. As part of the research environmentally compatible alternatives are being investigated and examined.

Energy consumed during space missions

Along with demisability, and the reduction of hazardous impacts for people, IComp will be focusing on reducing the energy consumed during the life cycle of a full space mission. “IComp is interested in looking at whether there’s a more environmentally friendly material that can be used instead of what’s currently being used,” said Patten. “Through life-cycle analysis, it will look at environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with products. “Tests on potential materials will determine how they compare to an inventory of materials that are already in use. A lab will take in the new materials and will know of controlled materials, so it will compare them to in order to look at sustainability and green materials, both on the Earth and in space.” This is the first contract awarded by the European Space Agency to IComp, which is a Technology Centre funded by Enterprise Ireland. ”This is our first time with ESA as a prime contractor, although we’ve done work as a sub-contractor for ESA projects before. Getting in as prime contractor for the first time is great. Your first time in anything is a big jump, because it’s all new and the proposal is different,” she continued. “For IComp, this is great opportunity to expand our research efforts in the space sector and transfer knowledge of bio-composites into new and emerging technologies. We’re delighted to be awarded this contract and hope to continue our research efforts in this area,” concluded Patten.