Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why Thoth Technology Won't Build a Space Elevator Anytime Soon

          By Chuck Black

Pembroke, Ontario based Thoth Technology's recent announcement that the company had been granted a "United States patent for a space elevator," likely won't cause any stock analysts to downgrade their recommendations for the large, publicly traded rocket firms which currently put objects into orbit.

After all, Thoth has been making the very same announcement for at least the last five years and nothing has ever come of it.

An info-graphic covering many of the concepts surrounding a space elevator including the best potential locations (at the equator), optimum distance from Earth for the various components, a sampling of the various materials which can be used to create the elevator, a selection of construction options (including generating a space elevator from geosynchronous orbit) and a comparison between the size of a space elevator, the size of the tallest terrestrial mountain (Mt Everest) and the deepest ocean trench (the Marianas Trench). It's worth noting that the info-graphic, originally published as part of the August 2000, NASA/CP—2000–210429 document "Space Elevators; An Advanced Earth Space Document for the New Millenium," explicitly references the possibility that high altitude balloon structures could "provide support and  stability through the upper atmosphere," in much the same way as the 2015 Thoth patent application.  For more background on the concepts behind space elevators, check out the .August 23rd, 2013 Stories by Williams article on Space Elevators. Graphic c/o NASA.

The core of the latest story surrounding Thoth is the July 21st, 2015 Thoth press release, "Canadian Company granted US patent for space elevator" and its claim that Thoth had been "been granted the United States patent for a space elevator." According to the press release, "the freestanding space tower is pneumatically pressurized and actively-guided over its base. Reaching 20 km above the planet, it would stand more than 20 times the height of current tall structures and be used for wind-energy generation, communications and tourism."

And it's been patented.

The press release also quoted Thoth president and CEO, Caroline Roberts as taking a cheap shot at Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) efforts to create a reusable first stage rocket with her statement that, “landing on a barge at sea level is a great demonstration, but landing at 12 miles above sea level will make space flight more like taking a passenger jet.”

And the patent, US Patent 9085897 for a “Space Elevator,” a "freestanding space elevator tower for launching payloads, tourism, observation, scientific research and communications," is certainly reasonable enough, if a bit short on details.

Graphic from Thoth Technology patent application US 9,085,897 attributed to Brendan Mark Quine in Cookstown, CA but assigned to Thoth Technology in Pembroke, ON. Quine, an assistant professor at York University in Toronto, ON is also listed as the chief technology officer of Thoth Technology on the Thoth Technology website. Graphic c/o US Patent and Trademark Office

Of course, the patent isn't a space elevator, at least in the sense the words have been used before. The patent is more appropriately a "balloon tower," a 20 mile high structure too small to be a "space elevator" but certainly useful enough for proof-of-concept studies and as a jumping off point for larger structures.

And that's also assuming that the system will work. A key component of the patent, the gas expected to be used by the inflatable tower, wasn't defined in the patent. If you use helium, leakage will make it very expensive. If you use hydrogen, flammability in a structure that is likely to attract lightning is an issue. Other light gasses, like methane, also have flammability problems. The only gas that is safe and low leakage is neon, and that is also very expensive.

Which is likely one of the reasons why entrepreneurs haven't yet jumped aboard to take advantage of the proposal.

There's also a second reason; inflatable towers aren't really a new thing. There are already inflatable radio towers and the cell structure the patent describes is already used in large inflatable structures and blimps, at least according to several of the comments in the August 15th, 2015 Reddit Space post, "Company in Canada gets US patent for space elevator."

Thoth Technology graphic promoting the 20 mile tower. Graphic c/o Thoth

As observed at the beginning of this article, this specific idea is not even new to Thoth. As outlined in the July 25th, 2009 CTV article, "Canadian couple shoots for stars with space elevator," Thoth Technologies has run a very similar plan up the promotional flagpole at least once before, with publicly disappointing results.

But the patent could also be a blocking or pre-emptive patent registered in order to allow Thoth to keep competitors out of a particular market or technology field. Pre-emptive patents also allow for access to licencing profits, a system where the company able to role out the product covered by the patent, is required to share the profits with the company which was first issued the patent.

That would, of course, generate some revenue for Thoth and this would certainly be a change, given its history of developing interesting concepts which never get funded.

An example would be the December 8th, 2014 post, "Engineering Expertise, Marketing Knowledge & Business Acumen Each Needed for "Beaver" Crowd Funding." The post discussed a Thoth generated Indogogo crowd funding campaign under the title "Northern Light Mission to Mars," which managed to raise only $10,012 CDN, or only 1% of the $1.1Mln CDN the company said it needed in order to move forward.

Chuck Black
Will this fiscal inertia change over the next little while? Stay tuned.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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