Competing for space

Companies race to manufacture ZBLAN optical fiber in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit
01 January 2021
By Gwen Weerts
International Space Station
Artist's rendering of the International Space Station. Over any six-month period, the ISS has up to 250 science experiments taking place on board.

In 2016, Made in Space announced a partnership with ThorLabs to manufacture optical fiber in low-Earth orbit (LEO) aboard the International Space Station (ISS). While many people could have seen it as a gimmick, if successful, it could represent a possible goldmine, and one with multiple prospectors. At this moment, there are three companies—Made in Space, Physical Optics Corporation (POC) and Fiber Optics Manufacturing in Space (FOMS)—with fiber draw towers on ISS, and in 2020, two more—DSTAR and Apsidal—saw their proposals for in-space optical fiber production selected by NASA. They all have plans to make a commercially viable product. In space.

Whereas the bulk of optical fiber that currently powers our connected world is made from silica, these companies are all investigating the production of ZBLAN fiber. ZBLAN is a fluorinated optical fiber composed of zirconium, barium, lanthanum, aluminum, and sodium. With a broader spectrum that can offer 10 to 100× signal loss reduction as compared to silica fiber, mass-produced ZBLAN would be a boon for communications. However, production of ZBLAN on Earth, under the influence of pesky gravity, results in imperfections in the crystal lattice of the fiber that cause significant transmission losses. Work by NASA in the 1990s indicated that manufacturing ZBLAN in microgravity could eliminate those imperfections and unlock its commercial potential for use in medical devices, high-power lasers, and ultrafast data transmission.

Which brings us back to the ISS. Over any six-month period, the ISS has up to 250 science experiments taking place on board, ranging from 3D-printed human tissue to growing lettuce. Those experiments are confined within gloveboxes (closer in visual to a NICU incubator than a vehicle's glovebox) or microwave-sized modules known as lockers that are mainly autonomous in nature. Several of those lockers and gloveboxes currently aboard the ISS contain fiber draw towers specially designed by POC, FOMS, and Made in Space.

These companies have spent the past few years iterating on and perfecting their draw towers. Howard Warner III, VP and general manager of integrated systems at POC, says that they're currently on the design and development phase of their third fiber optic production machine, which, having already proven the ability to manufacture high-quality fiber in microgravity, is now focused on increased automation. They ultimately need a production line in LEO that requires minimal human interaction. Their goal is to be able to produce tens or even hundreds of kilometers per month.

"As we look ahead, I think from a fiber optic perspective, we're looking at a five-year timeline before full-rate production. We're looking at 2025, and we'll use that time to work on defining the marketplace and supply chains," says Warner.

The marketplace seems to be interested. Both POC and FOMS have bootstrapped with Small Business Innovation Research R&D awards from the US Air Force (POC) and NASA (FOMS). Made in Space, on the other hand, raised all of their funding privately, and their early partnership with ThorLabs gives them a leg up on distribution, if they're able to make the numbers crunch.

And that's, perhaps, one of the most remarkable things about this idea to manufacture optical fiber in LEO. It could be commercially viable.

Dmitry Starodubov, the principal investigator for FOMS, shared his math: "The specialty optical fibers have been priced at $100–200 USD per meter. One kilogram of optical fiber has the length of 10–30 km and has the commercial value of $1–6M USD. With the delivery price of around $60K USD per kilogram to the station and back, we have healthy margins to grow our space fibers business."

Now that these companies have all achieved proof of concept, they will continue to chip away at problems of scaling and economics. If they succeed, their business models will depend on a space platform willing to host their production facility. But does the ISS want to become a fab? In short, yes.

Ryan Reeves is the ISS National Lab Program Director for Advanced Materials. He says that early experiments on the ISS were focused on R&D, with a desire to learn things that could translate to Earth. "Now, both NASA and ISS National Lab, we're seeing an opportunity for exploring in-space production. The opportunity for microgravity science opens up new possibilities," he says. "If the investigators are successful in making high-quality ZBLAN fiber in microgravity, then we're going to have to find commercial platforms that can do that at industrial scale."

And that platform could be the ISS, at least for a while, until a commercial space platform is ready. And that's in the works, too. Privately owned company Axiom is planning to build a fully commercial space facility for research, manufacturing, and tourism, in cooperation with ISS. Initial concepts show modular segments that will be built onto the ISS, like LEGOs, before ultimately separating into an independent and autonomous space platform.

Reeves is confident that space manufacturing is part of our future, on both ISS and Axiom platforms. But he's waiting to see whether companies can make the financials work out. "A lot of times [with ISS experiments] we can get there with the science and be sure that the quality is there," he says. "But the big question is the economics of translating the science into scalable and sustainable production."

Staradubov is optimistic that FOMS can succeed commercially. "With the existing pricing of the space industry, we should be able to reach commercial sustainability and pay for the space services in the medium future from our growing production capabilities," he says. "The critical part for sustainable space economy is building the healthy cash flow while leveraging the competitive advantages. If you run the numbers, the commercial efficiency is the key factor."

And part of a healthy commercial ecosystem—in space or otherwise—is competition.

Gwen Weerts is the Managing Editor for Photonics Focus.

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