Monday, February 18, 2019

Space Could be the Most Perfect Construction Site for the Most Perfect Fiber Optics

          By Chuck Black

According to Mountain View CA based Flawless Photonics President and CEO Chandra (CK) Singla, the real future of manufacturing in space could begin with a small automated, fiber optic fabrication laboratory (the "Fab Lab") currently scheduled to launch in April, 2019 with the next SpaceX Falcon-9 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The December 2018 cover of "Upward Magazine," the official publication of the ISS National Lab explored the increasing efforts to manufacture exotic fiber optics in a micro-gravity environment in the article "Exotic Glass Fibers from Space. The Race to Manufacture ZBLAN." Graphic c/o Upward Magazine.

Singla is currently working with co-founder Rob Loughan, plus a small team of material science, optical fiber and micro-gravity experts to bring a new generation of innovation and creativity to the final frontier.

He spoke about the upcoming mission, and about why optical fibers are an order of magnitude more useful when manufactured in space, with this blog last Friday.

"We've been focusing in this area to understand how to achieve the theoretical promise of several glass compositions to provide a 10 times or greater improvement in performance of optical fibers, by increasing the operational spectrum at far lower attenuation. Our work builds upon the research on the effects of microgravity on ZBLAN optical fibers by NASA materials scientist Dennis Tucker," said Singla. "The upcoming mission is our proof-of-concept."

CK Singla. Photo c/o CK Singla.
Optical fibers are flexible, transparent strands made by drawing glass (silica or fluoride gas) or plastic to a diameter slightly thicker than that of a human hair.

The strands are used in many industries including telecommunications, aerospace and healthcare because optical information travels over longer distances and at higher bandwidths (data rates) than is possible with electrical information traveling over electrical cables.

But on Earth, gravity influences strand formation by encouraging flaws and crystals to develop within the fibers made from the more promising fluoride glasses during the manufacturing process. Those flaws slow down the transmission of optical information in much the same way as a cloudy window makes it difficult to see through.

According to Singla, as data transmission needs grow exponentially, telecom and data network operators looking for new solutions are closely following our development roadmap due to the possibility of  "sending ten time the data ten times further" using far less infrastructure, provided the influence of gravity is removed from the manufacturing process

The simpler infrastructure will save more than enough money to cover the cost of the added ISS portion of the manufacturing process.

"We're going to use the Fab Lab to test out our theories. If the mission succeeds, it will have a transformative effect on healthcare, telecommunications and other industries," he stated.

The fibers manufactured on board the ISS will be returned to Earth for testing several weeks later on board the Dragon capsule during its return trip.

Flawless Photonics is currently in the midst of plans to raise $20Mln US ($26.5Mln CDN) to commercialize their work.

As outlined on the Mahwah NJ based private equity and venture capital firm Moe Funding LLC undated post, "Space Manufacturing Platform." the technology is
... optimized for the size constraints and the rigors of space travel in order to cost effectively launch our equipment on existing rocket technologies such as those from SpaceX, and can easily be handled and installed by astronauts at the International Space Station’s commercial research lab, 360 miles above the Earth. 
The result is FlawlessFiber™ which has better attenuation and spectrum bandwidth than any fiber made on Earth today. It is composed of a special glass called ZBLAN rather than silica, and its capabilities far exceed the physical properties of silica glass fibers.  So what’s the catch?  ZBLAN optical fibers can only achieve their ideal performance if they are produced in the absence of Earth’s gravity.  Which of course means, we go to space! 
​FlawlessFiber™ will revolutionize many industries that currently use optical fibers while creating entirely new products and markets that do not yet exist because these perfect fibers simply can’t be produced here on Earth.
According to the May 11th, 2018 post, "Making Stuff in Space: Off-Earth Manufacturing Is Just Getting Started," Singla and his team aren't the only people working on the process, although they do seem to be the closest to creating a commercially salable product.
Our plans are to begin quarterly flights to the ISS with enough supplies to create commercial sized quantities of our fibers, just as soon as we complete our proof of concept and complete our fund raising.
It's also worth noting that high-quality ZBLAN fiber optic cables manufactured in the traditional manner on Earth are currently quite pricey, despite being limited by attenuation that is greater than silica.

Any manufacturing process able to increase the performance 10X or more would change the economic equation and the resulting product could end up with significant market share while being very profitable.

Given that, we can reasonably expect to hear more from Flawless Photonics, CK Singla and their partners in the near future.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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