In-space manufacturing may sound like science fiction, but it is already occurring, albeit on a tiny scale. It is a nascent market that analysts and a number of entrepreneurs anticipate will take off.
Because of its elevated levels of radiation, microgravity, and near-vacuum state, space provides a unique environment for research and development, allowing companies to create new manufacturing methods or materials that are impossible on Earth.
This is not a wholly novel practice. The International Space Station has hosted a number of experiments conducted by academicians, government agencies, and commercial clients to grow human tissue, create purer semiconductors, and develop new or improved drugs, among other things. In the budget for the fiscal year 2024, President Joe Biden allocated $5 million for NASA to conduct cancer research on the International Space Station.
However, access to the International Space Station has always been competitive, and interest continues to grow. Now, a number of space entrepreneurs see an opportunity to fulfill the demand for in-space manufacturing with compact space factories. Southern California’s Varda Space Industries is one company. Varda’s mission is to assist pharmaceutical companies in improving their drugs or developing novel drug therapies by utilizing the unique properties of space and then returning the materials to Earth.
The phenomenon of protein crystallization is central to Varda’s business proposition.
This occurs when supersaturated protein solutions are essentially evaporated to form a solid, allowing scientists to examine the structure of a protein. Understanding the crystal structure of a protein can assist scientists in gaining a better understanding of disease mechanisms, identifying drug targets, and optimizing the design of drugs. Consider medications that have fewer adverse effects, are more effective, or can withstand a wider range of conditions, such as not requiring refrigeration.
Decades of research have demonstrated that protein crystals grown in space are of far superior quality to those grown on Earth. It is not intended to manufacture the entire drug in space, only the primary active pharmaceutical constituent, or the component responsible for the therapeutic effects of a drug.
Delian Asparouhov, co-founder and president of Varda Space Industries, stated, “You won’t see us producing penicillin, ibuprofen, or other very generic mass-consumption targets, as the quantity of crystalline required is well beyond our current capabilities.” “However, there are numerous drugs that generate billions and billions of dollars in annual revenue that fit within the manufacturing capacity of our current manufacturing facility.”
Asparouhov stated that of the hundreds of millions of doses of the Pfizer Covid vaccine administered in the United States in 2021 and 2022, “the actual total amount of consumable primary pharmaceutical ingredient of the actual crystalline mRNA was less than two milk gallon jugs.”
In Cardiff, Wales, across the Atlantic, Space Forge is designing its own in-space facility to manufacture next-generation semiconductors. Space Forge’s objective is to produce semiconductor substrates from materials other than silicon in order to produce more efficient, high-performance processors.
Andrew Parlock, managing director of Space Forge’s U.S. operations, stated that the next iteration of materials will enable the company to achieve unprecedented levels of efficiency. There will be a 10 to 100-fold enhancement in the performance of semiconductors.
Creating the ideal crystals in space is the key to accomplishing this type of performance improvement in semiconductors, just as it is with pharmaceuticals. These advanced processors are essential for industries like 5G and electric vehicles. Space Forge, like Varda, intends to manufacture only a portion of the processors in space.
“Once we’ve created these crystals in space, we’ll be able to bring them back to Earth and effectively replicate their growth,” said Space Forge CEO and co-founder Josh Western. “Therefore, we don’t need to go to space countless times in order to achieve a decent level of scale with our FAB partners and customers on Earth.”
Watch the video to learn more about in-space manufacturing and Varda and Space Forge’s intentions to commercialize the process.