Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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Global Warming, Space Elevators & Space Shafts

By Yap Shiwen

Far more needs to be done to secure Singapore’s longer-term economic future, given the shifting socio-economic landscape of the world. Global warming,geopolitical shifts, energy security and the emergence of new shipping routes are some of the many challenges that Singapore will face in the future.

In a constantly competitive global market, where disruptive innovations such as 3D printing, robotics and automation are increasingly important in the information economies binding the world, Singapore needs to stay ahead with the next major game-changer. We need to seek out ways to diversify our economy, and where possible put ourselves in the leadership position.

Changing world, new challenges

The odds of current world economics are stacked against us. The emergence of the Northern Sea Route – where melting polar ice caused by global warming opens up new shipping route that would allow international trade to effectively by-pass us – presents a potential threat to Singapore’s current leadership position as a shipping hub.

Increasing global competition for energy resources and increased challenges to energy security brought about by peak oil production and its predicted consequent decline also means that economies are constantly seeking ways to minimise energy dependence and optimise energy security.

The economies of East Asia, specifically China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, major trading partners of Singapore, will have a shorter maritime route to Europe in time due to the opening of the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic. This leads to significant cost savings for those involved in the maritime, manufacturing and logistics sectors.

As an example, the EU is China’s biggest export destination, with 290 billion Euros (US $385 billion) in goods sold in 2012. COSCO, China’s largest shipper, has spoken of the new route in commercial terms, estimating reductions in shipping times, cutting costs and fuel consumption. In short, it presents greater cost efficiencies for both shipping and logistics industries. Some analysts predict 7%-15% of China’s international trade being shipped through the Arctic route within 7 years.

Arctic shipping, as well as increased competition for energy resources, are long-term economic threats that can be mitigated by developing a space industry and its associated infrastructure. Interestingly, this is an area where Singapore has a distinct advantage.

Reaching beyond the skies

Diagram of a Space Elevator - image from Wikipedia
Diagram of a Space Elevator – image from Wikipedia

Two projects of significance are Space Elevators and SpaceShafts. Both of them have major technological and strategic implications,due to their crucial role in projecting bulk objects into orbit at affordable prices.

A Space Elevator is a mega-structure consisting of a counterweight that orbits above the surface beyond geostationary orbit at 96,000 km. It is secured to a ground station, preferably a sea-based platform, by a thin filament called a tether. Due to the Earth’s rotation, the counterweight is perpetually in tension, allowing material to be carried into space along this filament by an elevator device.The tether would be made of nanotubes, composed of either boron nitride or carbon.

A SpaceShaft is a proposed atmospherically buoyant structure functioning as an elevator system to near-space altitudes. Tethered to the ground, it is essentially a buoyant atmospheric structure – it lifts cargo to space or near-space altitudes but unlike the Space Elevator, not into orbit. It is designed to deploy tether spools when building a Space Elevator but can function in a nearly equivalent role.

Singapore as a space market leader?

The idea might seem remote, but the reality is far more manageable than we think, and definitely in Singapore’s interest to seriously consider.

Dr Paul Mitchell, a former Associate Professor at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU,proposed Singapore as a viable location for such mega-structures. He predicted that an absence of local energy resources and compromised energy security – given global competition for energy resources – would form Singapore’s primary interest in building a space elevator: Unlimited, inexpensive power from space-based solar arrays.

A Space Elevator, while in itself expensive to build, significantly reduces costs for space-fathering endeavours. Lifting a single kilogram into orbit via traditional rockets remains expensive, at US $20,000-$25,000 per kilogram. Using a Space Elevator would reduce it to an estimated US $200-$220 per kilogram. Estimated build costs range from US $6 billion to $8 billion. By comparison, the Singapore Armed Forces’ operating budget for 2011 was SG $12.08 billion (US $9.58 billion).

The technical know-how needed to realise this and the economies of scale needed are currently daunting, but not impossible for us. Indeed, the Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn) of the Economic Development Board was launched in February 2013, with the mandate of developing Singaporean space industry.

We can only hope that a Space Elevator is on OSTIn’s cards, because the economic opportunities are immensely attractive. However, a major stumbling block is the capital expenditure and infrastructure required to support such large projects.

Sea-based Space Elevator - image from Wikipedia
Sea-based Space Elevator – image from Wikipedia

We are among the few terrestrial locations along the equator – a major plus for keeping a Space Elevator counterweight in orbit – offering political stability, excellent logistical connections, a strong economy and an educated population. With the need for energy security amidst increasing competition for energy, a space elevator or space shaft offer tremendous potential in diversifying the economy and providing for potential job opportunities in direct and support industries.

Material sciences and engineering are one clear area from which Singapore stands to benefit. For instance, one material currently in development for a SpaceShaft is aerographene, which has been developed by Zhejiang University – one of the universities involved in the establishment of the Singapore University of Technology & Design (SUTD). As such, Singapore is poised to help develop the technology needed for orbital travel.

Without doubt, the space industry will be increasingly critical for Singapore. Developing the human capacity for space flight is no longer a distant dream, but an immediate and pressing economic and technical reality that Singapore must consider, in order to prosper and remain relevant at a global and regional level.

Hear Professor Michio Kaku talk about what a Space Elevator would be like.



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