Picture a prehistoric cave-dweller producing crude animal drawings using charred bone. Now picture the same charred bone, but this time used to protect scientific satellites from the sun.
It may sound improbable but bone is being used in this way with technology developed by an Irish engineer.
John O’Donoghue, CEO of ENBIO, has received funding worth €2 million from the European Space Agency to develop the technique and to build a space technology centre in Clonmel, Co Tipperary.
The firm has won the contract to produce heat and radiation shields used on ESA’s solar orbiter satellite, to be launched in 2017. The satellite will fly inside the orbit of Mercury, breaking the record for how close an orbiting satellite has got to the solar surface.
Effectively ENBIO makes sunscreen for satellites, specialised surface treatments that help control high temperatures and block out damaging ultraviolet radiation, explains O’Donoghue.
He says these treatments rely on the use of calcium phosphate, the stuff that bone is made of. But instead of scraping a burnt bone across a surface, he uses grit fired by compressed air to scour metal surfaces and embeds a thin coating of burnt bone just two to five millionths of a metre thick.
He developed the technology while completing a masters in biomedical engineering.