DARPA reveals tech firm that will support nuclear rocket development

2 Oct 2020

Concept of a spacecraft powered by a nuclear thermal propulsion system. Image: NASA

This week in future tech, US firm Gryphon Technologies was confirmed as the winner of a $14m contract to help develop a nuclear propulsion system.

Following the news that the US military is looking at new forms of nuclear propulsion to take astronauts into space, a tech services company has been tasked with supporting such a system.

Gryphon Technologies – a firm that usually develops cloud solutions, predictive analytics and technical solutions for the US government – confirmed it won a $14m task order from the US military’s research division, DARPA, to help develop a ‘high-assay low-enriched uranium nuclear thermal propulsion system’.

The new rocket will enable the US military to operate spacecraft in cislunar space, which is the region outside Earth’s atmosphere and extending out to just beyond the moon’s orbit.

Dr Tabitha Dodson, Gryphon’s chief engineer supporting the project, said: “A successfully demonstrated nuclear thermal propulsion system will provide a leap ahead in space propulsion capability, allowing agile and rapid transit over vast distances as compared to present propulsion approaches.”

Hydrogen-powered train hits the rails in the UK

The UK has followed Austria in testing a hydrogen-powered train on a national rail network. The train has been in development for almost two years under the HydroFlex programme, and by 2023 the hydrogen technology could be retrofitted into the country’s in-service trains.

Unlike diesel trains, hydrogen-powered trains do not emit greenhouse gas emissions, instead using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat. HydroFlex was developed with funding from the UK’s Department of Transport, the University of Birmingham and Porterbrook.

Plans are also underway for the construction of a hydrogen transport hub in the Tees Valley region and, separately, a hydrogen refuelling station as part of the country’s £23m Hydrogen for Transport programme.

HydroFlex’s developers said the next stage of development is already under way, with the University of Birmingham working on a hydrogen and battery-powered module that can be fitted underneath the train, allowing for more space for passengers in the train’s carriage.

Grant Shapps, the UK’s secretary of state for transport, said: “As we continue on our road to a green recovery, we know that to really harness the power of transport to improve our country – and to set a global gold standard – we must truly embed change.”

3D-printing market stays strong despite Covid-19

A report released by 3D-printing company MakerBot claims that 74pc of businesses surveyed said they were planning to invest in the technology in 2021. Among those looking to use 3D printing in their business, 70pc said it was for concept modelling, followed by creating functional prototypes (66pc) and R&D (44pc).

Nadav Goshen, CEO of MakerBot, said that despite the impact of Covid-19 on businesses, 3D printing has remained relatively unscathed.

“While Covid-19 impacted the business operations of nearly 70pc of the respondents, 56pc said that it did not impact their investment plans in 3D printing,” he said.

“In fact, when respondents were asked what their investment plans were for next year, 74pc stated that they still had plans to invest in 3D printing. This is an incredibly positive response, which we believe signals growing confidence in 3D printing’s ability to improve resilience, responsiveness and, ultimately, the profitability of business operations.”

Instant payments to hit $18trn mark by 2025

A new study from Juniper Research has suggested that the value of instant payments, where transactions are completed within 10 seconds, is set to skyrocket. While currently standing at $3trn, the market analyst firm estimated this could surge by more than 500pc to $18trn by 2025.

Western Europe is expected to drive this increase, potentially accounting for 38pc of instant payment transaction value in five years’ time. However, the US is expected to be further behind in terms of adoption, with only an 8pc share by 2025.

“With the proposed FedNow service from the US Federal Reserve not coming into service until 2023 or 2024, the US is rapidly falling behind in instant payments,” said research author Nick Maynard.

“Payments vendors must concentrate on creating innovative digital payments products to bridge this gap or be faced with an outdated system.”

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Updated 4.30pm, 5 October 2020: This article was updated to clarify that Gryphon Technologies will help support the development of a nuclear thermal propulsion system, rather than building it alone. 

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic