Reusing Plastic Waste as Rocket Fuel [Space Brothers Collab #17]
Even though we call it “Space Development”, there are various purposes, technologies, and missions. In this series, we consider the current situation and the future of space development together with our Chief Dream Officer (CDO), Serika Ito.
The theme of this 17th article is responsibility for the future. We welcomed Mr. Derek Harris, Business Operations Manager of Skyrora, a Scottish start-up company that develops small rockets, and asked him about the features of their rockets, how the company was founded, and why the company places importance on community involvement.
Launching Rockets with Eco-Fuel Made from Plastic Waste
Serika: Hello, Nice to meet you, Derek! I was surprised to hear that Skyrora plans to use eco-friendly fuel refined from plastic waste to launch its small rockets.
Derek: Nice to meet you, too, Serika. It’s interesting to be involved in eco-fuels, like 3D printers, and other advanced technologies. I originally worked for a bank in the financial sector. At that time, when I was looking for what I should do as my next career, my friend was working at Skyrora, so I started supporting the start-up of the company. At first, it was only a six-month contract, but as I kept renewing it, it had been five years (laughs).
The unique feature of Skyrora’s rockets is that they can put satellites directly into sun-synchronous orbit*, saving time and money.
If other companies’ rockets are like buses, Skyrora’s rockets are like cabs or limousines as last one mile. And, as Serika mentioned, it uses fuel refined from plastic waste.
(*Note — “Sun-synchronous orbit“: an orbit in which the sun’s rays are always constant. It is one of the most popular orbits for Earth observation operators because it is easy to analyze data. When a satellite is launched by a launch vehicle that is injected into a different orbit, an “orbiter” must be used to inject the satellite into the desired orbit after it is released from the launch vehicle.)
Serika: Why did Skyrora decide to refine fuel from plastic waste?
Derek: We wanted to create something different from other rocket companies. We wanted to use a fuel that was sustainable and responsible for the future, which led us to plastic waste.
Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, where Skyrora’s headquarter is located, is a city that focuses on green tech, including recycling technology. With the North Sea oil fields off the coast of Scotland, the oil industry has supported Scotland’s economic growth. Against this background, Scotland is also noted for its high carbon dioxide emissions and is said to be highly conscious of environmental issues, even by global standards.
Serika: So you decided to develop a rocket that takes advantage of Scotland’s strength in green tech. Fuel refined from plastic waste is attracting attention as a new energy source. How do you refine it?
Derek: The refining process is similar to distilling whiskey. You burn the plastic, and if you take it out at a certain point, it becomes diesel fuel for diesel vehicles, and if you take it out at another certain point, it becomes fuel for rockets. As you mentioned, the technology to extract heavy oil from plastic has been developed. However, rockets require high-quality fuel, and it is hard to refine them. This is truly the fruit of the efforts of Skyrora’s chemical engineers.
Space Enriches Life on Earth
Serika: Skyrora’s mission, “ To realise the tangible benefits of responsive access to, and responsible exploration of space for the increased well-being of life on Earth” also shows its commitment to taking responsibility for the future. By the way, how was Skyrora founded?
Derek: Skyrora is a young company founded in June 2017; Skyrora’s founder and CEO, Volodymyr Levykin, is from Ukraine and founded the company because he thought he could take advantage of Ukraine’s rocket technology.
Serika: Engineer Sergei Korolev, also known as the leading rocket developer of the former Soviet Union era, is also known to be from Ukraine. Many engineers from Ukraine participated in developing the Soyuz rocket, and I hear that Ukraine has accumulated a lot of technology in rocket development.
Derek: That’s right. The Skyrora mission that Serika introduced was not a special idea for us. The satellites launched by rockets are used to observe greenhouse gas emissions and to protect the ozone layer, right? This ultimately leads to the enrichment of people’s lives and the environment.
Serika: The observed data by satellites is used to help protect the global environment. Do you think that people, as well as satellites, should go into space?
Derek: That question changes depending on whether it is a question for the company or for myself. Either way, it would be a good thing for humanity to go into space. New technologies are being created, and we are contributing to medical research, such as the experiment that Serika is doing on the ISS. But at the same time, we are also thinking about responsibility. No matter how much we contribute, it is completely meaningless if we are emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases or generating space debris.
The other reason I want to go to space is simple, I want to know what is out there and see more beautiful stars. Curiosity is deeply rooted in human beings.
Scottish Style — Space Development Advancing with Local Communities
Serika: What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Derek: It is very rewarding to be involved in advanced technology. For example, when we launched the first rocket from a launch site in Iceland in October 2022, I felt a sense of innovation that I could not have experienced while working at a bank.
Also, working for Skyrora gives me a strong sense of being able to give value back to the community, so that aspect is very rewarding.
Serika: What kind of community would that be?
Derek: For example, we have a community of local residents, and we ask them sometimes, “What do you think about the work we are doing?” and we have opportunities to get feedback from them. I recently attended a student conference in Manchester, where I gave a presentation about Skyrora and interacted with some of the future engineers.
Serika: The image of space development from citizens is often not a close subject for their life, but Skyrora is very close to neighbors and students.
Derek: I think this is a special Scottish way to communicate with people. Our basic idea is always to make ourselves “available”. Generally, when companies start a business in a market, they move toward winning the competition and increasing their market share.
However, what Skyrora is aware of is to become part of the local community. For example, we ordered the materials needed to build a launch pad to launch rockets from a local contractor. Through our work, we will give back the value of space utilization to the local community.
Serika: By involving people from different industries, I imagine that there will be a better chance to render new ideas and businesses.
Lastly, what is your enthusiasm for the future?
Derek: First, we will conduct a “ground combustion test,” in which we will put fuel into the main engine of the first stage of the rocket and burn it to check its performance. After that, launching the rocket!
In addition, we are also developing a space plane that will refuel and repair satellites in orbit. Please look forward to getting our new update as well.
Serika: I am looking forward to seeing your next rocket launch! Thank you very much, Derek!
In our next interview, we will hear from Soichiro Ueno, CEO at IDDK, and Wataru Ikeda CSO at IDDK, a Japanese space biotechnology experimental venture that develops MID(Micro Imaging Device), which microscopic observation equipment that brings the microscopic world. Stay tuned!