Factories in orbit and recycling space junk – researchers receive funding to explore hi-tech solutions

28 May 2024

A technique that could help build large structures in space and give ‘space junk’ a new lease of life is being trialled by a team of scientists led by the University of Derby.

The researchers, led by Professor Angelo Maligno, Research Chair in Composite Materials at the University’s Institute for Innovation in Sustainable Engineering, have been awarded £150,000 by the UK Space Agency as part of the final round of its Enabling Technologies Programme, which is supporting the UK’s space capabilities.

Working with The Welding Institute, Lukiasiewicz-Poznan Institute of Technology in Poland, and Goodfellow Advanced Materials, the team will be using Integrated Computational Materials Engineering tools to develop and test a material bonding method for use in space.

With more and more companies exploring the opportunities to set up manufacturing in space, the race is on to create a habitable base on the moon. The structures required for this would be too large to launch already assembled, so a technique for putting them together is needed.

The University of Derby team and its partners are exploring the use of Transient Liquid Phase Diffusion Bonding (TLDB) as a method for welding together components in space. This process bonds materials using a thin layer of liquid that spreads along the join between them to form a joint at a lower temperature than the melting point of the parent materials. It would remove the constraints on the size and complexity of structures and would create more robust joints that are better able to withstand the demands that the space environment would place on them.

A group of people standing in front of a sign that reads University of Derby Lonsdale House
Left to right: Luke Boldock (UK Space Agency), Professor Angelo Maligno, Dr David Gonzalez and Dr Stefano Valvano (University of Derby)

The team is also investigating the use of TLDB to address the issue of sustainability in space. The bonding method has potential to be used to turn the Earth’s ‘orbiting scrapyard’ into a recycling space hub by transforming the spent upper parts of rockets into orbiting laboratories, greenhouses, fuel depots and space stations.

Professor Maligno said:

“Diffusion bonding techniques have exciting possibilities for advancing space exploration and so far scientists have only just scratched the surface of the capabilities. Another possible use is in the next generation of flight vehicles and spacecraft that would have to survive longer range flights and the high temperatures generated by hypersonic speed, so they have some exciting potential for the future of space exploration. That is why missile systems company MBDA UK has also supported the project.”

Professor Warren Manning, Provost (Innovation and Research) at the University of Derby, said:

“This funding is exciting news for the research team at the University, with great potential impact for advancing the UK’s capabilities in space. This is just one example of the work being carried out at the IISE and across the University, partnering with industry to achieve tangible impact and make a difference to our future world.”

Materials for the project are being supplied by Goodfellow Advanced Materials. Dr Aphrodite Tomou, Head of Technical at Goodfellow, said:

“Through our participation in the project, Goodfellow anticipates substantial advantages, particularly in the realm of Transient Liquid Phase Diffusion Bonding processes and associated materials. This newfound expertise will empower us to create and provide advanced materials customised to meet the specific requirements of the Space industry, including electronic applications, as well as the broader Aerospace and Energy sectors. Our collaboration positions us to address the evolving demands of these industries and deliver cutting-edge solutions.”

Find out more about the work of the IISE.

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