At a Glance
- Partners Space Tango and Boston University’s Beeler Research Group have developed a fully automated platform to support in-orbit chemical reactions that will launch to the ISS on SpaceX’s 20th commercial resupply services mission.
- This CubeLab investigation marks the first effort to synthesize organic compounds onboard the ISS.
- By hosting three fully automated reactions, the investigation will establish safe design principles that will support any future efforts to conduct organic chemistry reactions in microgravity.
- The Beeler Research Group was selected by the ISS National Lab to develop reactor systems for flow chemistry in space as an expansion to existing liquid-liquid separation capabilities that were previously demonstrated on the ISS by Space Tango and Galactic Grant recipient Zaiput Flow Technologies.
Continuous flow chemistry is the preferred process to conduct reactions safely without sacrificing the quality, purity, and cycle times when starting materials are limited and scalable applications are necessary. Now more prominent in the pharmaceutical and fine chemical industries, continuous flow chemistry is revolutionizing Earth-based operations like active pharmaceutical ingredient manufacturing for drug development and the catalytic reactions used to manufacture propellants and fuels.
Similar manufacturing benefits that are a result of the on-demand synthesis of organic chemicals, foundational to many aspects of modern life, have been identified for space-based operations and long-duration missions where storage and stability are a challenge. To date, the potential benefits of synthesizing organic chemical reactions in microgravity have yet to be explored, but Boston University’s Beeler Research Group and International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory Implementation Partner Space Tango will change this on an upcoming investigation using a novel flow chemistry platform.
Scheduled to launch on SpaceX’s 20th commercial resupply services mission, the joint team will send a fully automated CubeLab investigation to the ISS to study the effects of microgravity on synthetic chemical reactions as a step toward the on-demand production of chemicals and materials in space. This research will lay the foundation for our understanding of chemistry in space and define the path for the potential future of flow chemistry in orbit for a variety of applications.
“Alongside Space Tango and the ISS National Lab, we have developed a flow chemistry platform that provides the chemistry community a safe approach to studying the effects of microgravity on chemical reactions,” explained Boston University Principal Investigator Dr. Aaron Beeler. “These early efforts are critical as we identify the potential influence microgravity has on the synthesis and manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, materials, and biologics. This will also provide a blueprint on how to best implement synthetic chemistry toward humanity’s expansion into space.”
But with a sensitive and extreme environment like microgravity, Beeler and the engineers at Space Tango had to approach this automated design with both safety and creativity.
“Innovation has truly been the forefront of this investigation as we miniaturize and adapt traditional chemistry techniques for a new, demanding environment,” added Space Tango TangoLab Program Manager Gentry Barnett. “Coupling our expertise in autonomous microgravity design and engineering with the expertise of the Beeler Research Group has resulted in a novel flow chemistry experimental platform that could be utilized for many future investigations in microgravity.”
The sealed 9-unit CubeLab, no larger than the size of a shoebox, will automate three different experiments once installed on the ISS-based TangoLab platform. This includes observing the mixing efficiency of a water-based reaction and the reaction rate in a biphasic reaction. The third experiment taking place, known as a peptide coupling reaction, will demonstrate the CubeLab’s ability to conduct more complex synthetic reactions.
“Installing a Chemical Reactor System on the ISS National Lab represents a big step for science and an even bigger one for the chemistry community,” said ISS National Lab Director of Scientific Partnering Dr. Kenneth Savin. “For the first time, we will have the ability to take advantage of microgravity’s effects on chemical transformations and the ability to make changes dynamically to the conditions applied to the process. We look forward to the pioneering work Dr. Beeler is preparing to execute and applaud Space Tango’s contributions to enable the chemistry program.”
Among other in-orbit applications, the flow chemistry platform is an expansion of existing capabilities onboard the ISS.
“Our partnership with the Beeler Research Group is a leap toward further establishing new commercial opportunities in low Earth orbit,” commented Space Tango President and CEO Twyman Clements. “Through the continuous development of automated, modular systems, Space Tango envisions a variety of in-orbit applications that benefit life on Earth.”