Summary of Mark Dodrill (ISEC History Committee) Interview with Dr. Bryan Laubscher, President Odysseus Technologies
(by Mike Hall)
Bryan first heard of the concept of the space elevator when he was a child but didn’t have a really good understanding of how it worked until around 1999-2000 when he was at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He attended a presentation by one of his colleagues, Brad Edwards, who had been inspired by a news report of a NASA workshop held in 1999 in which they predicted the space elevator would be built in 300 years! Brad’s curiosity regarding that kind of prediction led him to further research and he first reported on his results for the NIAC. The presentation and Brad’s description of the space elevator concept was a revelation to Bryan and he was hooked. As an astrophysicist he had always been interested in science, technology and space travel. He remembers watching the Apollo astronauts walking on the Moon.
Considering a particular aspect of the Space Elevator that most interests him, Bryan relates the “long journey” to his involvement with space elevator projects. Initially, it was an informal association with Brad Edwards who left the laboratory a year or so later and gave a conference, in Seattle, in 2002, which Bryan attended. They had an interesting conceptual design; Bryan gave a high level presentation but became aware that there were many different routes to take from this conceptual design; many different options and ways to approach the concept from a systems engineering sense. From this Bryan put on a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2003. In 2004 he helped Brad with a conference in Washington, D.C. funded by the Institute of Scientific Research. At this point, Bryan wanted to try something different and went on entrepreneurial leave from the laboratory in December 2005. He joined Brad, who then had a small company in Seattle, and worked with him for a year. It was a high strength materials company and Brad was trying to get things happening, get investors and so on.
There were people ready to invest in space elevators there and then but Bryan cautioned them that it would be a long time before any money could be made from elevators but they could make money in high strength materials. Unfortunately, Bryan was proven right, the whole thing fell apart, and a lot of people lost their money.
As an aside, Bryan describes how, at the Santa Fe conference, they set up satellite link to Sri Lanka and together with a telephone link were able to talk to Arthur C. Clarke who answered some of their questions.
In 2006 Bryan came to Seattle, worked for a year, learned a lot about entrepreneurship and met his future wife. He went back to the laboratory for a year and then returned to Seattle; eight months later, Brad, the company and his involvement with it all imploded. There were significant differences of views between Brad, Ben Shelef and those of Bryan. By this time Bryan had started his own material sciences company.
At the beginning they had very small ideas using simple approaches to make the strongest nano-tubes that people grow and make the strongest kind of macroscopic thread. They competed in the NASA Centennial Challenge, but no one came close to winning. In 2007 Bryan gave a talk at the Microsoft conference. Two people came to talk to him after his presentation, one of whom, Maurice Franklin, became a friend. They offered help and Bryan suggested that together they should put on a conference; they obtained Microsoft backing and these modest conferences, which started in 2008, continue to today. Microsoft has world class facilities which they let them use at a low price. Bryan thinks that someday they will be changes, especially if there are advances in materials.
In 2010, Maurice started the family involvement approach and robotics competitions. The Museum of Flight approached them and, following Microsoft advice, the events were transferred there. At this time Maurice was becoming less involved and David Horn was taking over the running of the conferences. Bryan was also becoming less involved with the organization of the conferences and now just shows up to give presentations. The conferences continue to be successful.
In July 2009 Bryan joined NASA at the Johnson Space Center, working in the space radiation analysis group. Unfortunately, as a result of the Constellation program being cancelled in 2010, Bryan became one of 7000 people that NASA laid off. He returned to Seattle and continued to compete in the space elevator games.
When they had the conference in Washington D.C. in 2004 Ben Shelef came with Meekk Shelef and some others. They wrote a proposal to NASA for the Centennial Challenge, Bryan’s group encouraged them, NASA provided the funding and the competitions continue. Bryan entered the high strength materials competition many times and there were also climber competitions which Bryan thought were revealing. The competitions involved teams from universities and elsewhere and produced some eccentric solutions. In the 2006 event one team managed to raise their climber two feet. Others used various light sources to drive their climber, including microwave. One team had a very slow but successful climber which did not win any prizes but won on reliability. Another team, trying to use microwaves, was noted by an electrical engineer to have the wiring completely wrong. The team from Saskatchewan University, regular participants in the competitions, on one occasion brought their own light source, a 2.1 kW laser! They were very well organized. Bryan was acting as Safety Officer at this time and advised them to build a tunnel through which they could safely beam the laser and reflect it to the climber. The team drew huge crowds so safety was a particular concern. The laser failed to reach full power but the team made an arrangement with another team, who weren’t doing so well, to combine their efforts. Bryan recalls his concern that the LaserMotive team, mainly scientists, had a more laissez faire approach to safety with their 8 kW laser. He remembers that in the early competitions there was hardly any movement of the climbers, then Saskatchewan brought in the laser and it was followed by others and so safety was becoming a big issue, they had to switch off the beam when aircraft came close!
Eventually, Ben Shelef got the competition moved to NASA Dryden at Edwards Air Force Base and Dryden took on a lot of the organisation. Most teams used GPS as a part of their control systems, LaserMotive used a joystick which turned out to be a good solution since GPS did not work at Dryden!
The systems approach adopted by LaserMotive, eventually won them a $900,000 prize. Saskatchewan come close to winning but managed to raise an impressive $350,000 each year in order to participate. Bryan was so impressed by the Saskatchewan teams that he says if he had had a daughter he would have encouraged her to pick one!
In 2010, after these challenges, Bryan decided he needed to plough his own furrow and start up a company. He had become convinced that current approaches at the time were going in the wrong direction. Growing nanotubes long and strong was very difficult. Techniques such as CVD could not do it; a whole new technology was needed. He saw that a key technology for the Space Elevator project was high strength materials development. He attended a conference at the University of Cincinnati, talked with them and bought some of their nanotubes. He saw a demonstration of a micro medical device for diagnosing problems. The technique used to coat the sensor with re-agents using a uncoil-coil mechanism impressed Bryan and led him towards conceiving the Nanotube Detangler and started development work in his garage.
He built and installed equipment, for example, a ‘glove box’ ventilation system. His detangling system would increase strength eight-fold plus or minus four so he needed more accurate mass measuring equipment. One of the investors in the company from WSU were instrumental in providing more accurate equipment and also involving students in Bryan’s research project and teaching them about carbon. The new instrument showed that the strength had increased by a factor of 14. He could put in and untwisted carbon filament and strengthen it up to the same strength as a twisted filament! Inspection after the tests revealed that amorphous carbon was being removed and it was increasing in density. There was also a difference between the cathode and anode with the cathode always the strongest; meaning the ion infusion was a subtle but important effect.
The following year at the same conference Benji Maruyama, of the Air Force Laboratory revealed that the Lab had been studying for maybe ten years trying to understand why chemical vapour deposition (CVD) stops. Bryan also talked about this in his presentation. First, the hot carbon bearing gas allows not just carbon atoms to crack on the surface of the metal catalyst and then move in or on the surface to become a carbon nanotube. It can also become amorphous carbon. It forms amorphous carbon and chokes off the path for the other. Secondly, of course in this heat it dissolves down into the substrate and the catalyst carbon becomes too small to grow a carbon nanotube. Thirdly, of course, is that the Ostwald ripening system makes the smaller ones loose mass to the larger ones and they both become the wrong size to grow a carbon nanotube. Bryan decided he had to do something, to invent a new way to grow carbon nanotubes because they are always going to get short, damaged tubes. Finally, the already grown nanotube is sitting there cooking in this hot carbon gas, carbon bearing gas environment, like acetylene or whatever they’re using, and reactions occur to damage it. He concluded that in order to get long strong pristine, CVD was not the answer. Of course the chemists who were working on CVD agreed with him and a year later he had another six ideas but each one of them had a problem.
He talked with a German physicist from First Nano, a CVD specialist company. He managed to resolve each of the problems with Bryan who was then able to see that he needed something else. A year later he had a seventh idea, “Trecking”. He showed it to Maruyama who agreed it might work and from then on Bryan started raising money; about eighteen months of learning during which he had to reduce activities to a minimum, he eventually convinced investors, Keiretsu in Seattle, to back him.
Having reached a good settlement with his investors Bryan set about equipping his laboratory mainly with self built systems based on his thirty years experience in research and development; for example, a vacuum system and drilling his own masks. Bryan has a belief that carbon nano-tubes rather than matrix material are the solution and that being able to start with pristine strong tubes is very important. Secondly, being able to work with them and to achieve densities to the point of eliminating impurities like amorphous carbon. Then we could start producing filaments that are untwisted. Twisting creates problems in the form of “forces that come back to bite you”. Other uses for these materials could be batteries and possibly armour. When this reliable construction thread is achieved he believes it can be used for carbon based space structures. He further believes that carbon nanotubes will feed into other industries and the by-products of Space Elevator development will be a carbon based revolution in the way cheap steel and aluminium did. He says “it is not a question of whether we build the Space Elevator but when!” and this will lead to a demand for the carbon nanotubes products for instance, for building bridges. He notes that the discovery to use timescale for carbon fibre was about fifty years.
Bryan does not have a specific goal for the length of the carbon nanotubes he is trying to grow because at this stage he is doing proof of principal experiments based on his experience at Los Alamos. He conceives an idea, checks it against theory, does a proof of principal experiment and then hands it over to an external agency. He is looking for partners or a buyer, who could progress the work that he has been doing. He recalls being frustrated working in the government laboratory that some good ideas and proven solutions were not progressed.
Mark thinks the biggest benefits if we had Space Elevator now, are firstly to build an infrastructure of solar powered satellites leading to clean energy. With this you don’t have to worry about the day/night cycle, the weather or the angle of the Sun across the sky. That would change the world in the way that the 1928 US government programme to get electricity to the rural areas. So the first phase would be solar power. We would then be living in a different world where space is ‘close’. Schools and industry would have cheap and easy access to space for their experiments or products. A lot of the cost in current space access is the ‘space hardening’ and ‘packaging’ to get into orbit; for example, the James Webb Telescope. With the Space Elevator you just load it or suspend it beneath the climber. Bryan relates the compromises that the Hubble Space Telescope people had to make to fit the scope in to the rocket fairing which had fixed dimensions. The small fairing issue and the throw-away rocket are big problems and the Space Elevator will change all that with a possible cost reduction from $20,000 to$60 for a 20lb load!
Mark’s final questions for Bryan are what does he think is the best way to power climbers? For the first climber Bryan thinks LASER power beamed from the ground. Secondly, where does he think the first elevator would be located, for which he doesn’t have an exact answer but recalls Brad Edwards’ study which favoured a location west of the Galapagos Islands. Thirdly, if he had the chance would he ride the Space Elevator and the answer was an unequivocal “I would”.