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Net zero by 2050? The answer is up in space

Manufacturing materials outside the Earth’s atmosphere could be the key to achieving the UK’s climate goals.

By Joshua Western

The 19th century was powered by coal, the 20th century by oil. And the 21st century? It’s all about critical materials. When you look closely, there’s one thing that appears in every aspect of our lives: electronics. Computers, TVs, tablets, kitchen tech, medical tech – the list is endless. But the energy that powers it is not – hence the focus on improving, creating and building out our renewable energy supplies.

Here’s the rub, however. We currently can’t generate enough power to achieve net zero with renewables. Almost everything that has an on or off button is run by a chip or semiconductor. Fridge? Semiconductor. Laptop? Semiconductor. Bedside LED lamp? All of the electronics embedded in our daily lives have this in common. The purpose of semiconductors is to conduct electricity to power our devices and equipment. Which leads us back to the question at hand: we need energy, and lots of it, to run our lives and drive the economy, so can we generate it in a way that’s better for the environment, and aligned with our net zero ambitions?

Manufacture more efficient semiconductors, and you immediately reduce demand on energy supplies. Just look at 5G telecommunications towers which currently run at about 8 per cent efficiency, the biggest output being heat – its intended one is just a side-effect.

The key to improving the desired outputs from our semiconductors is to improve the quality of the base materials. We’ve reached the limit of the materials we can make on Earth, so it’s time to manufacture in space. That’s where Space Forge comes in. We are an advanced materials manufacturer that will make the key component of semiconductors, crystals, using the world’s first returnable, reusable, and scalable factory in space. With microgravity, a natural vacuum and extreme temperature capabilities, we will be able to manufacture materials that can’t be made on Earth.

If we swapped the semiconductors in a 5G tower for ones manufactured using space-made crystals – improving the efficiency and lowering energy usage and running costs – we could reduce the tower’s carbon emissions by about 75 per cent. In 2022 the network cost about £1.4bn a year to run – space-made semiconductors could potentially reduce that figure to about £400m a year.

The same goes for the National Grid – swap to space-made chips and efficiency improves by 10 per cent. This might not sound like much, but it would be equivalent to the energy generated by a new Hinkley Point C power station. The potential for lowering energy use and carbon emissions is enormous, from reducing the size of engines to improving electric vehicle stations’ efficiency and charging times by 50 per cent.

Our aim is to be the world’s first carbon negative space company, in the true sense of the word “negative”, so that we’re actually preventing more carbon dioxide than we’re emitting. We’ll do that by feeding enough of these advanced materials into critical supply chains.

More efficient semiconductors and materials are essential to powering our economy, so we’re encouraged by Labour’s UK-wide Green Prosperity Plan to “make Britain a clean energy superpower to cut bills, create jobs, and deliver security with cheaper, zero-carbon electricity by 2030, accelerating to net zero”. Labour is asking the right kind of investment questions: how do we spend money in a way that reshapes the economy towards net zero? As a private sector company, we can help to shape the market the same way – in-space manufacturing is still so novel, so there’s not much of a precedent.

Most chips are produced in Taiwan and if the Covid pandemic showed us nothing else, we’ve seen how fragile global supply chains are. During the harshest lockdowns, semiconductor supplies quickly dried up. There’s a strong case for creating a consistent and secure sovereign supply chain in the UK free from interference elsewhere.

The US is already working on its own supply chain strategy, having invested a cool $50bn into building its own semiconductors, alongside the European Union, which has put €47bn into its own. While the investment in these countries is huge, Space Forge could supply the UK with these materials at a relatively low cost – tens of millions to set up what we’re trying to achieve – and with government support we could get there quite quickly. We’d be one of only three countries in the whole world, alongside the US and China, that can manufacture in space and return the materials to its own territory, putting the UK in a very good position to become a global market leader.

With a Space Law and Strategy in place, unlike many other countries, the UK already has a framework in which to operate, giving us the opportunity to set the standard globally and shape regulations. With our enterprising in-space tech, we’re eager to work with government and relevant authorities to help shape that.

Space Forge isn’t just here for profit and extraction. We’re investing in the country to help build an ecosystem that could develop into a thriving net zero economy. We’re investing in a mission to make space work for humanity.

[See also: Chris Skidmore – net zero climb-down sacrifices Britain’s climate leadership for short-term gain]