Researchers at the University of Manchester have teamed up with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the architecture firm behind the world’s tallest building – Burj Khalifa in Dubai – to investigate the design and manufacturing of graphene-enhanced human habitats for the space industry. Graphene, which was first isolated at the University of Manchester, is an allotrope of carbon that consists of a single layer of atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice.
The global space economy has been projected to grow to the point where it’s generating US$1 trillion in revenue by 2040. The new collaboration is aimed at generating innovations that will raise the technology readiness level (TRL) of new lightweight composites that use 2D materials for space applications.
A team led by Vivek Koncherry, CEO of SpaceBlue and a research associate at the University of Manchester – with support from the Manchester-based Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre – will create a scaled prototype of a space habitat that features pressurised vessels designed to function in a space environment.
SOM will contribute design and engineering expertise to the research into space architecture. ‘Designing for habitation in space poses some of the greatest challenges,’ said Daniel Inocente, SOM’s senior designer in New York. ‘It means creating an environment capable of maintaining life and integrating crew support systems.
‘As architects, our role is to combine and integrate the most innovative technologies, materials, methods and above all the human experience to designing inhabited environments,’ he continued. ‘Conducting research using graphene allows us to test lightweight materials and design processes that could improve the efficacy of composite structures for potential applications on Earth and future use in space.’
It has been suggested that over the next 5–10 years, most governments will want to establish a permanent presence in space, in order to manage critical infrastructure, such as satellite networks, and to explore the potential for exploiting space-based resources and conduct scientific research.
‘A major barrier to scaling up in time to meet this demand is the lack of advanced and automated manufacturing systems to make the specialist structures needed for living in space,’ said Koncherry. ‘One of the space industry’s biggest challenges is overcoming a lack of robotic systems to manufacture the complex shapes using advanced materials.’
The team believes that the key to overcoming these challenges is to incorporate graphene for advanced structural capabilities, such as radiation shielding, and to develop and employ a new generation of robotic machines that can make these graphene-enhanced structures. The technology also has the potential to revolutionise high-performance lightweight structures that could also be used for terrestrial applications in the aerospace, construction and automotive sectors.