Space travel is heating up again. The tongue-in-cheek way people are choosing to treat this new boom in space pioneering, is by calling it the second space race. Except this time it’s billionaire versus billionaire. Business giants like Virgin’s Richard Branson and Amazon and Blue Origin’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, are looking to the skies, and hoping to define the future of space travel. Another one of the esteemed gentleman at the helm of the new age of space travel is South African born Elon Musk.
Musk famously said: “If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
SpaceX recently achieved the breakthrough and have made aerospace engineering history by reusing a previously launched, refurbished rocket. The company sent the rocket into orbit and brought it back down to land, on a drone barge in the ocean. The rocket in question was SpaceX’s Falcon 9. It retained its original engines and components and delivered a satellite for company SES at a fraction of the price.
Reusing rockets will minimize the costs of future rocket launches, and save money on engineering rockets from scratch. SpaceX says the majority of the price of a rocket launch is the building of the rocket itself. Prices will be driven down if the reusability technology becomes commonplace in the aerospace industry.
After a USD$1 billion investment and fifteen years in the making, SpaceX was ready to launch a previously launched rocket into orbit, and bring it back down again. SpaceX’s President, Gwynne Shotwell, says that they are just getting started:
“Looking forward for reusability, we don’t believe it really, really counts unless you can turn it around rapidly, or almost as rapidly, as you turn around an aircraft. Our challenge right now is to refly a rocket within 24 hours. That’s when we’ll really feel like we’ve got reusability right.”
According to Popular Mechanics, the Russian government was initially undecided on reusable rocket technology unsure it would turn a profit for their aerospace giant, Roscosmos. However, after the success SpaceX achieved, they are now reconsidering.
The Chief of Roscosmos Igor Komarov said: “The innovations SpaceX is making are forcing us to work on lowering the cost and raising the product quality. We are running pilot projects in the sphere of retrievable components.”
The Russians risk being left behind in this Space Race 2.0, if they don’t start acquiring the engineering skills necessary to engineer reusable rockets. SpaceX and America’s space authority NASA are linking arms to take another giant leap for mankind and take crafts to Mars by 2020. SpaceX have also said that they would be flying two tourists to the moon in 2018.
The reusing of already engineered components is a philosophy that is seldom tried so remains largely untested. However, electric vehicle (EV) companies, like Musk’s Tesla Motors, are testing their already engineered hardware for reuse. And some headway has been made elsewhere.
Reusable batteries for cars and homes
For quite some time now, car companies working on the implementation of electric vehicles on our roads, purported that once a car-powering lithium-ion battery had served its purpose within an electric vehicle (in accordance with electric vehicle standards), it could be taken out of the car and used as a home-powering energy storage device afterward.
According to experts in the field, the lithium-ion batteries in electrical vehicles still retain 70% to 80% of their energy storage capacity after they reach the end of their legal life cycle inside the vehicles. The idea was that once the battery had been used in the vehicle and was ready for decommissioning, it could be added to a photovoltaic solar array and be used to store the energy produced for the electricity used to power a home during peak demand times.
General Motors realized in 2016 that a 2012 Chevrolet Volt that had driven 300,000 miles had no battery degradation issues – a clear sign that the battery could be reused outside of the vehicle.
“Even after the battery has reached the end of its useful life in a Chevrolet Volt, up to 80 percent of its storage capacity remains,” said Pablo Valencia, GM’s senior manager for Battery Life Cycle Management.
However, a new report by Lux Research, an independent research and advisory firm in the United States, claims that recycling the lithium-ion batteries, instead of reusing them, is the best way forward for the automotive industry. An excerpt from the report read:
“Reuse of batteries from electric vehicles will deliver questionable returns on account of reduced performance, limiting them to application with less frequent and shallower depth of discharge cycles.”
Christopher Robinson, Lux Research Associate and the author of the report named ‘Reuse or Recycle: The Billion-Dollar Battery Question’, said:
“With present technology, recycling old batteries for new materials is the more economical option for creating the most value from existing materials. That said, innovations in areas like packaging and testing could tip the balance in the future, so companies should have plans for both recycling and reuse.”
BMM and Nissan both recently announced that their respective electric vehicles would be able to reuse the batteries as home energy storage systems in the near future. However, Lux Research cautions that the companies need more efficient testing, sorting, and repackaging than that which has already been advertised. Robinson says that second-life systems or the EV battery to wall systems, offer only limited cost savings and not much else.
However, BMW’s Manager of Connected eMobility Cliff Fietzek asserted that people could power their homes for 24 hours with the decommissioned batteries from their i3 EV car models. He said:
“It doesn’t make sense to scrap the battery at the end of the useful life of the car because it’s still good for services like powering your home. The car battery may be over designed for a home storage system, but well suited.”
Grossman, David. "After SpaceX's Success, Russia Wants a Reusable Rocket Too." Popular Mechanics. 04 Apr. 2017. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.
"Recycling, Not Reuse, Is the Better Choice for Batteries from Retired Electric Vehicles." Recycling, Not Reuse, Is the Better Choice for Batteries from Retired Electric Vehicles | Lux Research. 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.
Shanklin, Emily. "Reusability." SpaceX. SpaceX, 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.