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Harwell scientists help make space age gadgets a reality
9:30am Tuesday 6th November 2012 in Abingdon
Andy Bennett with a fibre reinforced brake disc made with the same material developed for a space vehicle heat shield to prevent brakes overheating
SPACE scientists and entrepreneurs are meeting up this week to hammer out mind-boggling new ways of bringing space technology down to earth to create new businesses.
The space facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, RAL Space, will today play host to business people from the worlds of medical devices, motorsport, electronics, sensors, robotics, energy, and environmental technologies. It is offering licences for 65 patents of inventions developed by the space industry.
Among the developments to come out of space technology is Aerogel, designed to protect astronauts during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere after space missions. It is now being showcased at Harwell. RAL Space is now one of Europe’s largest space research labs, employing about 200 people.
The two-day conference, called SpaceTech 2012, is being backed by the UK Space Agency and began yesterday.
Paul Vernon is head of campus development at RAL Space’s parent organisation, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
He said: “Aerogel is quite simply the best insulation known to man, effective in environments from minus 50 degrees to plus 3,000 degrees centigrade. “It is 98.8 per cent solidified air and so is extraordinarily light.” So-called thermal biomorphs, developed at Harwell, provide another glimpse of the strange world of the future.
Mr Vernon said: “They were originally made to provide the legs of tiny little robots the size of silicon chips that could walk across Mars. They were never used but are now being exploited by Microvisk Technologies, which has offices in Chipping Warden, in a hand-held medical device used to measure blood thickness and determine Warfarin doses.”
Andy Bennett, the European Space Agency’s UK Technology Transfer broker, demonstrated the new fireman’s hydro jacket. He said: “Astronauts experience extremes of temperature. This flame-proof jacket, silver in colour to reflect heat, also has a layer containing tubes of water and is ideal for firefighters.”
RAL Space is funded jointly by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (DBIS) and by the commercial exploitation of its facilities and inventions.
Its super microscope Isis (named after the traditional name for the Thames in Oxford) can examine items 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. Among scientists using Isis is a group from Oxford University looking at high-temperature superconductors.
These are currently used in hospital MRI scanners but could in the future be used to improve the efficiency of electricity transfer in the national grid.
The technologies include:
- An organic waste processing method that can produce edible biomass for animals in a few days, or even fuel gas or fertilisers.
- An electronic multi-functional watch for navigators on air, sea or land.
- A new reflector for high energy beams that will enable X-rays to be used more widely.
- A solar power-maximising system that has been tested on spacecraft but is equally suitable for any generator.
- An autopilot for sailing boats which can come up with the quickest route between two points, taking into account weather and sea conditions.
- An “exoskeleton” robotic