Flow Chemistry in Space–a Unique Opportunity to Perform Extraterrestrial Research

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Authors: Gellért Sipos 1 Tamás Bihari 2 Dorottya Milánkovich 2 , and Ferenc Darvas 1 , 3

ThalesNano Inc., Graphisoft Park, Záhony u. 7, H-1031 Budapest, Hungary 

Innostudio Inc., Graphisoft Park, Záhony u. 7, H-1031 Budapest, Hungary 

Florida International University, 11200 SW 8th St, Miami, FL 33199, USA

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1556/1846.2017.00033

Page Count: 151–156

Publication Date: 01 Sep 2017

Online Publication Date: Sep 2017Article Category: Research Article


For successful deep space exploration, a vast amount of chemistry-related challenges has to be overcome. In the last two decades, flow chemistry has matured enough to take the lead in performing chemical research in space. This perspective article summarizes the state of the art of space chemistry, analyzes the suitability of flow chemistry in extraterrestrial environment, and discusses some of the challenges and opportunities in space chemistry ranging from establishing an end-to-end microfactory to asteroid mining.

1. Introduction

There is an increasing public and private interest in deep-space explorations. However, there are many challenges associated with long-duration space flights mostly due to the limited resources available during these journeys. For example, the limited storage space means a serious restriction and the possibility of refilling stocks through space launches is expensive and time-consuming. Astronauts suffer from different health problems and illnesses: osteopenia which has been observed during the Project Gemini, sleep disturbances [1], or space motion sickness, just to mention a few [2]. In addition, the short shelf life (typically less than 1 year) of pharmaceuticals in space adds another layer of complexity to the problems [3]. The treatment of these conditions often requires chemical and medical solutions.

Chemistry has had an undeniable role making us capable to reach space. The vast amount of research and development, from the plastic pieces of satellites to high energy rocket propellants, all involved intensive chemical research. However, to date, chemistry has had more of a supporting role than being the discipline of investigation [4]. Nevertheless, some chemical research has been done in space and also in microgravity environment (e.g., synthesis of polymers) [5]. One might rightfully ponder: Why have we done such a limited amount of chemical research in space? Do we need to do chemical research in space at all?

The way how chemical reactions are performed resembles the conditions two hundred years ago, i.e., chemists still use round bottom flasks and stirrers most of the time [6]. Adaptation of the conventional experimental methodology in chemistry to space is far from straightforward. The microgravity (μg) environment affects convection and fluid dynamics, which results in an environment where conventional batch chemistry does not seem evident. In this perspective, we show why flow chemistry shall be the method of choice for space chemistry research.

The content of this perspective can be summarized in the following points: first, we will give a brief overview on the historical and present approaches of space chemistry. In this section, we separately discuss scientific, technological, and industrial results. Next, we will detail why we believe that flow chemistry will have a vital role in the future of space chemistry. Finally, we will describe some intriguing challenges and opportunities. We consider challenges as cases where the problem lies in a problem space with open boundaries. For several millennia, e.g., walking on the Moon was a challenge. In contrast, opportunities are considered as finding solutions in a closed problem space (with rapid development of natural sciences and engineering, walking on the Moon became an opportunity in the early 1960s). While opportunities are constrained by technical problems, challenges are focusing on concepts in a much wider aspect.

Read the full paper on akjournals.com

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