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Spin-offs: when space tech falls to Earth

Water treatment facility at the University of Kenitra campus, Morocco (c) Firmus

A water treatment plant in Morocco using technology developed by the European Space Agency 

As well as the many things that satellites and other technologies can do for us in space, their innovations have even more applications down here on Earth. And patents often play a central role in putting ‘rocket science' in our hands.

Satellites and space exploration are high-technology enterprises; they are literally ‘rocket science'! And throughout the history of space technologies, many have produced spin-off applications that significantly improve life on Earth: from new medical technologies, through solar cells and recycling techniques, to computer technology and miniaturised electronics.

Materials and equipment have to be designed to operate in the harsh environment of space - with its extremes of temperature and pressure - and for use in situations where repair or replacement is impractical, and payload weight is a huge part of launch costs. This leads to cutting-edge performance in many areas: strength, durability, low weight, efficiency, reliability, miniaturisation and radiation-proof. These improved characteristics can then lend themselves to new applications on Earth.

Spin-offs and start-ups

Scanner (JPG)Although it is an urban myth that NASA´s 1960s Apollo space programme invented technologies like Teflon and Velcro, it did develop and popularise their use. Publicly funded space programmes produce basic research and new technologies, some of which they patent themselves, but their innovative reuse in new applications or processes can also be patented.

The EPO's free-to-use patent database, Espacenet, shows almost 1900 European patent applications in the space vehicles and equipment category. And there are many more patents for products and methods based on these technologies used in other situations on Earth. For example, barely 10% of the European Space Agency’s nearly 1000 patent publications over many years are for space vehicles and equipment.

Real space spin-offs include the Computer-Aided Topography (CAT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technologies, first developed to survey the moon's surface, which are now used in scanners in many hospitals. NASA work has also led to medical developments in areas such as speedy blood tests, artificial heart pumps and artificial limbs.

Clothing materials developed for astronauts have been turned into running shoes, insulating ‘space' blankets for exposure sufferers, and cooling suits for racing drivers and nuclear power-station workers. Freeze-dried foods and enriched baby formula originated in space programmes, as did scratch-resistant lenses. NASA-supported R&D also resulted in more efficient solar cells.

The Moroccan Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research, Lahcen Daoudi, at the opening ceremony of a water treatment facility using sustainable power and space technology at the University of Kenitra in Morocco, 17 April 2014. (c) Firmus

European Space Agency (ESA) spin-offs, for example, have taken organic membranes developed to recycle water in space to provide clean water for a school in Morocco; they have taken software for cleaning up satellite photos to detect flaws in wind turbines; and others have developed remote-controlled robots and exoskeletons that could revolutionise emergency and rescue response.

As testament to the potential of space spin-offs, both NASA and ESA have technology transfer programmes dedicated to encouraging take-up by the private sector. As of 2012, NASA had promoted nearly 1800 spin-off technologies for ground-based use.

Patenting to protect value

These technologies do more than just enhance our quality of life through better or cheaper products and materials. They also generate significant economic benefits thanks to improved economic efficiency and productivity. In 2007, ESA estimated that, besides creating 1500 jobs, annual revenues from their transfer of space technologies exceeded €80 million - between 15 and 20 times more than the expenditure of ESA Member States on the space programme.

Space labThe OECD found that several ESA member countries have measured the multiplier effect of their investments in the space programme: the 25 Danish companies active in the space sector have averaged an additional turnover of €3.7 million for each €1 million of support from ESA programmes; Norwegian space-sector companies multiplied each €1 million into €4.7 million, while the United Kingdom estimated an economic multiplier of 1.91 and an employment multiplier of 3.34: the UK's space industry directly contributed some €4.8 billion to GDP in 2009, and supported 83 000 jobs.

To turn space tech into a viable business, companies often use patents. Whether it is to protect their innovative ideas from their competitors, or to attract investors with their technological assets, patents often form the basis of space spin-off enterprises.

According to the OECD, the number of space-related patents filed under the international Patent Co-operation Treaty (PCT) almost quadrupled between 1996 and 2011. ESA reports that it applies for up to 20 patents every year, amounting to a portfolio of 450 live patents and pending applications in total. The agency's Technology Transfer Programme then licenses this intellectual property (IP) to private enterprises. And these companies can, in turn, patent their own further innovations.

For example, the Dutch start-up company Giaura has applied for a patent on a process using an absorbent material originally developed to recycle carbon dioxide (CO2) from spacecraft cabin air. According to Max Beaumont, Giaura CEO, the material will capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere like a sponge soaking up water, then release it as a clean, carbon-neutral source of CO2 - to boost vegetable growth in greenhouses or put bubbles in soft drinks - with no additional emissions to the atmosphere.

Outlook: space is a growth area

An OECD survey of space-related patents from 2000 to 2008 showed the United States and Europe leading, followed by Korea and Japan. The same study found that the space industry was of particular importance to Russia, France, Israel and the US, where space activities show a high level of patenting compared to other sectors.

Patent applications in space-related fields continue to grow. As NASA and ESA work on their next generation of rockets and launch vehicles, and private-sector players like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic enter the space race, innovations will continue to come down to Earth.

While most of us may never go to space, there is little doubt we will use more and more of the products and technologies that have been designed to do so.

Screenshot from video on GIAURA – A surprising earthly application for space station technologyMax Beaumont, Giaura CEO, explains his plan to use a sorbent material designed for a space station to capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere. The material can release it, as a clean, carbon-neutral source of CO2 - for use in agricultural greenhouses or soft drinks - with no additional CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

More information

ESA Patent Portfolio

ESA patent portfolio pie chart (GIF)

Source: European Space Agency