Space research for Europe’s materials and processes industry

PCB - printed circuit board
19 September 2007

The European Space Agency has appointed a Commercial Agent Network to target the materials and processes industry to market and sell the use of services, resources and facilities that ESA can offer on the International Space Station.

Rome based technology transfer company Innova S.p.A. won the bid to become the prime contractor of ESA' second Commercial Agent Network. Together with seven sub-contractors, Innova will tackle the vast area of markets summed up under the term Materials and Processes, which includes industry branches as varied as metal, textile, energy, electronics or construction.

The network will consist of seven companies from three European countries, namely Innova (Italy), KB&P (Germany), ISS Lab Ruhr GmbH (Germany), Bureau BD (The Netherlands), D’Appolonia (Italy), Centro Sviluppo Materiali (Italy) and the AGT Group (Italy). Through this network structure, a larger geographical spread and a wider range of expertise in the sub-markets of the Materials and Processes area, such as New Materials, Nanotechnology, Combustion and Interfacial mass and energy exchange can be achieved.

"We are very proud of starting this collaboration with ESA on such a challenging commercial project." says Pier Luigi Franceschini, Project Manager of the Commercial Agent Network in the Materials and Processes sector. "This activity is of primary importance for Innova. There is a good deal of unexplored opportunities to perform industrially-relevant research in space, and these opportunities will grow enormously from 2008 onwards, when the European research laboratory Columbus will be on orbit. Recent advances in new materials and the fast-growing field of nanotechnology are posing many scientific and technological questions that could be answered through research on board the ISS. Our role is to effectively communicate these benefits to the industries and to lead them through the entire process of development and implementation of research projects, in close collaboration with ESA".

Optical material for computational optics
Optical material for computational optics

The two Commercial Agent Networks now in place – the first being ISS Lab Ruhr GmbH with its sub-agents for the Life Sciences sector – act as ESA's sales force, appointed to bridge the gap between ESA and the non-space industry by marketing the commercial opportunity to access the ISS to perform research or test technologies in markets that could benefit from microgravity research.

ESA took the decision to open the ISS for commercial utilisation in 2001. In 2004, ESA's first Commercial Agent Network for the market sector of biotechnology, health, food and nutrition was appointed, lead by German ISS Lab Ruhr GmbH. The model proved of value, as their first successful commercial project was carried out on the ISS during ESA's Astrolab mission by German ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter.

"The appointment of Innova as our new Commercial Agent now allows ESA to also identify and support companies in the materials and processes market sector so that they can easier benefit from the unique research and technology demonstration opportunities onboard the ISS." says Andreas Diekmann, Head of the ESA’s Human Exploration Promotion Division. "Both Commercial Agents are experts in their market fields and therefore best placed to support companies in defining and implementing experiments on the ISS that respond to their specific research or technology demonstration objectives. If requested, ESA can further support with experience gained from the scientific utilisation of the ISS."

Microgravity research in the Materials and Processes sector has already proven to be fruitful as the ESA-coordinated EC project IMPRESS (Intermetallic Materials Processing in Relation to Earth and Space Solidification) shows. This five year project that coordinates the research of 42 partners from 15 European countries plus Russia wants to dig deeper into understanding the link between materials processing, structure and the final properties of new high-performance intermetallic alloys through research in weightlessness.

The newly gained knowledge could be translated into breakthrough prototypes tailored for extreme applications, such as special high-quality light-weight cast turbine blades, to be used in aero-engines and stationary gas turbines or gas-atomised intermetallic powders to be used for example in hydrogen-fuel cells. Thus, ESA fosters not only research in Europe but acts also as a steppingstone for innovative businesses.

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