Irish researchers seek green tech for space exploration


9 Dec 2011

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Electronic systems are assembled for the Hylas-1 telecommunications satellite. Photo by ESA

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Tyndall National Institute, UCC and the University of Limerick’s Stoke Institute have begun a contract with the European Space Agency to find a green-tech solution for space exploration.

The one-year programme will evaluate the reliability of lead-free solders, which is a critical challenge for electronic assemblies deployed for space applications.

“The drive towards greener manufacturing methods on Earth is pushing space companies to build electronic systems for satellites without using certain toxic materials, like lead,” said Finbarr Waldron of Tyndall’s Microsystem’s Research Centre, who is leading this programme.

“As the life of a satellite is typically guaranteed for 15 years, it is important to understand how lead-free electronic systems operate in the extreme environment of space. Once a satellite is launched, it cannot be repaired – failure is not an option,” he said.

Extreme conditions

Researchers will investigate the use of materials that can withstand the extreme conditions spacecrafts experience. The materials need to be able to take rapid temperature changes, which can typically be from 55°C-125°C. They must also survive high levels of mechanical shock and acceleration, which occurs during the spacecraft’s launch.

“Aerospace is a very demanding application area for electronic assemblies: an extremely high level of reliability is required, yet equipment can experience very harsh conditions in terms of vibration and temperature swings,” Dr Jeff Punch, director of Stokes Institute at University of Limerick.

“We will draw on our knowledge of solder alloys to select the optimum material for aerospace applications, and the project will involve a rigorous programme of testing and analysis to prove the reliability of the alloy,” he said.

Finding lead-free components

Electronic assemblies are a major feature for spacecrafts for flight control and on-board experimentation. Lead-bearing materials have been banned in most electronics since 2006 by the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive, though areas such as aerospace initially received an exemption.

However, as the electronics supply chain is dominated by consumer technology, lead-compatible components have proved difficult to source for the aerospace industry.

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