Gadhadar Reddy co-founded deep science company NoPo Nanotechnologies back in the year 2011, to realize the dream of his youth traveling to Mars. No matter if it was a government entity or a private space company NoPo’s breakthroughs in the past decade have taken interplanetary spaceflight one step closer for those who are not astronauts.
Gadhadar hoped to develop a brand new supermaterial called carbon nanotubesto ensure that space travel is safe. He recalls hearing that people believed that the idea would be “not possible”, especially in India. He responded by naming his business NoPo and set to work.
In the present, Gadhadar and his team have made significant progress, from finding out how to create carbon nanotubes, to identifying applications for it in a variety of areas.
It is a firm based in Bengaluru is currently manufacturing 250 grams of carbon-based nanotubes every month. Even though the amount of carbon nanotubes produced is not as large as what is needed to build the construction of a satellite, NoPo is overcoming the issue by exploring different options to generate revenue, such as carbon nanotubes being used in the process of water filtration as well as battery components.
In 2017 American Space Agency NASA authorized a 15 million grant to speed up studies into carbon nanotubes. The goal is to help in the development of rockets aimed at the human spaceflight mission to Mars.
Greg Odegard is the director of the NASA Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites through Computational Design (US-COMP) that was established to achieve the goal. According to him, carbon nanotubes offer the most scientifically and economically feasible route to Mars.
In an interview this year in American newspaper Composites World, Odegard declared, “When NASA asked us to make a composite material that’s three times stronger than the state-of-the-art composite material, naturally the only way we can do that is with carbon nanotubes.”
The issue is with space travel in the modern age.
While we have made many advancements as humans have made in spacetechnology but we are still facing similar issues to the 1960s. A large payload on a rocket i.e. humans, as well as water, food, air as well as other equipment can exponentially increase the cost of launch, as compared to a smaller payload such as satellites.
The article, titled Composites World report, Odegard says, “those items [needed for space travel by humansweigh a lot and due to the fact that it’s a great deal of mass, you’ll require more fuel. The fuel itself is an additional mass.”
With an estimated value of $1 million per pounds (around 454g) using which the fuel, payload, and rocket weight costs are estimated, it will take NASA millions of dollars to fund an astronaut’s trip to Mars.
While India famously launched rockets towards Mars in 2014 at a cost that was less than the price it cost Hollywood to create their movie Gravity our rockets aren’t built to be able to handle large payloads.
It is the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) strongest launch vehicle GSLV-Mark III, has been scheduled to launch its first Indian astronauts into orbit around Earth in the coming year. Based on the Indian space agency’s website the spacecraft has an overall weight of 640,000 kilograms (or six40,000 kilograms) and the capacity to carry payloads of 4 tonnes, which is only 0.63 percent of the total weight.
Space organizations are required to cut down on the cost of fuel by removing as much weight as is feasible from the payload so that a predetermined amount of fuel is able to take the rocket to a higher level.
“When we build our rockets, we have to work at the limits of everything,” Gadhadar says. Gadhadar. “For instance when we construct tanks to fuel the system, it is made of incredibly small. It’s only enough to hold the liquids within it. If you’re using more pressure than you intended the container will explode.”
The amount of pressure that the tank of fuel is designed to handle above the recommended limits is known as the factor for safety. Similar to the stress that an aircraft can endure beyond the recommended limits without failing will be the security factor.
Due to the enormous costs associated with the launch of rockets, many companies construct their spacecrafts with an average of 20 percent security, or a factor for safety 0.2x. A car, for instance, has a the safety factor of 4x (400 percent) while elevators have a coefficient in safety that’s 11x (1100 percent). So, an elevator that is designed with only 4 passengers can actually accommodate 44 people.
Due to the lack of security, interplanetary programs don’t have the capacity to meet anything other than the essential needs of educated astronauts. There’s no space for safety enhancements such as hardware redundancies and even more pounds on a person, since the necessities required for space travel for people who are not astronauts will cost too much.
The perfect material for use in space
Carbon nanotubes are groundbreaking as they allow to decrease the mass of an whole spacecraft structure. Scientists no longer need to think about making payloads lighter, or to reduce the weight of specific parts.
Gadhadar says it is “the ideal material for space” because carbon nanotube has “magical properties”.
Carbon nanotubes possess the unique combination of a strong compressive strength (the capability to resist being pulled to one another) as well as a high Tensile strength (the resistance to from being pulled away) and is therefore ideal for rocketry. They also have the ability to resist radiation extremely well, making them suitable for space travel.
In addition, depending on the location of nanotubes it is possible to create an element that will transmit heat effectively and also insulate it effectively. Also, depending on the way you twist the nanotubes they can function as an conductor for electricity or semi-conductor. Most importantly, carbon nanotubes accomplish all this while being extremely light and extremely resisting to the effects of pressure.
According to Gadhadar the ISRO’s steel used in its launch vehicles has an average densities of 9 to 10 grams for every cubic centimeter and is able to be able to withstand pressures of up to 3 giga pascals. Carbon nanotubes are made of individual carbon with less density, which is 2 grams per cubic centimeter, and have been proven to withstand higher pressure of around 125 gigapascals.
With this in mind Gadhadar claims that spacecrafts constructed with carbon nanotubes instead of the modern materials could reduce the weight of the rocket “by a factor of 10”. Therefore, a spacecraft of similar size and fuel capacity, but made entirely made of carbon nanotubes would weigh one-tenth of the weight of the current launch vehicle.
Theoretically, manufacturers of rockets should not be concerned about the amount of weight required to create the spacecraft that will provide the comforts of space travel that is not astronaut-based.
Production is a major challenge
The world has been aware of carbon nanotubes since around 1980, but its applications are tiny currently. The process of making carbon nanotubes and ensuring they are produced consistently is a huge problem.
“One day we would have very good production, and we would be super happy,” Gadhadar adds. “Another next day we’ll switch on the reactors and the output is low. Everything about the reactors is exactly the same!”
After half a century researching the process of making carbon nanotubes Gadhadar put his faith in the new employee straight out of university, Anto Godwin. Godwin started working by testing and re-testing the reactor under a variety of possible conditions as he could think of from temperature to pressure to the quality of the component and much more.
Godwin was able isolate more than 250 variables in the process in the following half-decade which ensured the production of carbon nanotubes.
“The gross margins at scale are huge”
NoPo has been producing consistently carbon nanotubes for about a couple of months and has spent during that time increasing production as quickly as feasible. As of now, the startup is operating two reactors in development, one of which is under construction, and another that has the capacity to create 30 at the offices currently in use.
“Today, the reactors we have, they produce about 25g of material a month,” Gadhadar says. Gadhadar. “Which is a little bit of material when compared to the amount that is required for the spacecraft. If a spacecraft can transport 30 tons to orbit, the weight will be 100 tonnes,” he added.
NoPo’s biggest challenge is scaling the production rate quickly. The company has was able to raise a modest round in the year 2019, Gadhadar is now talking with investors about an additional round of growth. But, the company has an alternative route to get cash flow.
NoPo requires two easily accessible and inexpensive raw materials to make carbon nanotubes made of Carbon Monoxide and Iron Pentacarbonyl. It requires specifically 5 grams first, and 300 milligrams of the latter to produce one kilogram of carbon nanotubes.
In terms of financials they pay $0.4 worth of carbon monoxide as well as $0.0075 value of Iron Pentacarbonyl to produce 1 Gram of carbon nanotubes which NoPo sells for between $300 to $500 per gram. According to Gadhadar states, “the gross margins at scale are huge.”
He recognizes the huge electric charges and the ten-decade-long R&D costs that must be accounted for into any calculation. However it is clear that the math indicates NoPo could be able to finance growth using its current production capacity.
At present, NoPo is engaging with an unusual purchaser of its carbon nanotubes – water filtering system makers. It is a superior material for membranes to filter water as compared to current materials. There are ongoing pilots showing the nanotubes of NoPo’s membranes are 400 % more efficient at removing the industrial wastewater.
The company hopes to provide to the industry of paper with membranes for the paper industry in South India as well, that requires 4 thousands of square meters of membrane. When he spoke to people inside the company, he learned that the most recent technology for filtration increased efficiency by only 10%, but it made the entire industry change to.
Although water filtration is NoPo’s main source of revenue however, the company has been offered an unexpected opportunity.
One of the largest manufacturers of single-walled carbon nanotubes the world is one Russian company called Tuball. Automobile manufacturers have utilized Tuball’s materials to stabilize the batteries’ electrodes however, with sanctions for invasion being in effect, the company is searching to find new suppliers.
Tesla along with Toyota have approached NoPo to conduct a pilot test of its nanotubes . This could be a possible option to generate the revenues needed to construct a larger facility that will contain 300 reactors and possibly create tons of nanotubes every month.
Being the sole Indian company that produces carbon nanotubes on a regular basis, NoPo has an opportunity to be a major player in the market for carbon nanotubes in the country with a demand of 263,000 tonnes during FY 2021 according to Chemanalyst.
However, Gadhadar hasn’t lost sight of his original goal amidst these possibilities. “When they [space entities] actually start using the material, it starts making a difference,” Gadhadar states. “We are looking at small parts on the vehicle that can start using it right away in its current form.”
While NoPo is still working on rockets made of carbon nanotubes. It is currently building fuses to small satellites in order to test the substance in space. Gadhadar doesn’t have forgotten his dream of a trip to Mars However, he recognizes that the need to start with a small scale, once again.