Looking at what new science could be done in space
Posted: October 21, 2001

The saucer-shaped Wake Shield Facility spacecraft moves over shuttle Columbia's nose during deployment in November 1996. Photo: NASA
In 1986, University of Houston researchers sitting at a lunch table discussed what kind of new science could be done in the vacuum of space.

Fifteen years later, their efforts have led to an orbiting laboratory, technologies with potential markets in the billions of dollars per year, a plan to transmit solar power from the Moon to the Earth, and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefit to Houston.

The Space Vacuum Epitaxy Center (SVEC) at the University of Houston celebrates 15 years of research accomplishments in October. The center was established in 1986 with a grant from NASA to develop and commercialize new, thin film materials in the vacuum of space.

Since then, researchers have developed 15 new technologies, published more than 450 scientific papers, and received more than $80 million in research funding. Mark Sterling, assistant director for business development at SVEC, says even a conservative economic multiplier of the center's funding translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in local economic impact.

"We're doing work that has an impact on ordinary people," says UH physicist Alex Ignatiev, one of the SVEC founders who now directs the center. "We think our work makes a major contribution to the institution, as well as to the city, state and nation."

The center's first space project was the Wake Shield Facility, a lab ferried into Earth orbit three times by the space shuttle. The project was aimed at determining the feasibility of using the vacuum of space to manufacture new types of materials for use in devices such as computer chips, lasers and solar cells.

Today, SVEC focuses on more terrestrial-based research, and is undertaking more than 12 different projects. The center supports about 30 researchers and 30 students and attracts nearly $5 million a year in research funding from NASA, other federal and state agencies, industrial affiliates, and the university.

The key to research at SVEC is molecular beam and chemical beam epitaxy, techniques that allow scientists to build, or grow, custom-made materials literally atom by atom in an ultraclean, ultra-high-vacuum environment. Materials developed in this "designer" style, especially thin films of materials, have very specific properties, and many commercial applications.

To date, SVEC researchers have produced 13 patents and two spin-off companies. One spin-off, Applied Optoelectronics, was started in 1996 by SVEC researcher Thompson Lin to manufacture infrared lasers developed in SVEC labs. The company, based in Sugar Land, Texas, produces lasers for telecommunications and environmental sensing. It employs 60 people and has contributed about $50 million to the local economy, Ignatiev says.

A second spin-off company, Metal Oxide Technologies (MetOx), was formed in 1998 to produce commercial quantities of a new type of electric wire, which exhibits no loss in electrical efficiency or heat during operation. The wire, which can transport up to 100 times more current than standard copper wires, is based on material science developed at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, and on SVEC epitaxial deposition techniques.

MetOx's president, Lou Castellani, a 25-year power-industry veteran, licensed the epitaxial growth technology from UH in October 1998 and formed MetOx to commercialize the technology. The company, located in northwest Houston, could begin making the new wires in commercial quantities in late 2003, Castellani says.

"I was attracted to this technology not only because the potential market is huge, but also because of the positive impact it could have on our society, on the environment, and on the way we transport and use electricity," Castellani says. "A conservative estimate of the market potential is $5 billion a year for this product, and that doesn't include new markets that may open up. Depending on the final process configuration, we anticipate employing about 100 people for every $50 million to $100 million in sales, so we will have a significant impact on the local economy."

Alex Freundlich, a physicist with SVEC, uses chemical beam epitaxy to make solar cells that are more efficient than the most efficient solar cells used for commercial purposes today. Solar cells are devices that collect energy from the sun and convert it into electricity.

"We have made these solar cells with a new feature, quantum wells, incorporated into the layers of materials," Freundlich says. "This unique feature allows these cells to capture and convert much more of the incident sunlight into useful electricity. Where current advanced silicon space solar cells such as those operating on the International Space Station can convert 12.5 percent of the solar energy they encounter, ours will convert up to 35 percent." Freundlich has patented the technology and is working with several companies to commercialize it.

Solar cells not only can be used to power homes, but also are used to power communications satellites, which relay TV and cell phone signals around the globe. Freundlich says that if satellites used the more efficient solar cells, they could house two to three times more transponders, which translates into two to three times more customers.

In addition, he says his solar cells are much more resistant to the radiation found in space, which makes them last longer than current technology. They also would be comparable in cost to manufacture.

Another research project Freundlich is working on is devising ways to build large solar panels on the Moon and beam the energy back to Earth for commercial use. It's an idea that he says could be no more than 30 years away.

"We think we will be able to develop capabilities to use robotic rovers to manufacture large solar cells on the Moon, using indigenous materials found on the Moon itself," Freundlich says. "A large array of such panels, covering several square miles, could produce enough electricity to support a large-scale lunar colony. Electricity also could be beamed back to Earth via a microwave transmitter and receiver system."

Freundlich is working on the lunar project with the Colorado School of Mines and the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. Based on his calculations, Freundlich estimates that even by manufacturing low-efficiency solar cells on the Moon, one robotic rover the size of the top of an office desk could make enough panels to generate electricity to power about 200 energy-efficient homes a year on Earth.