gasworld speaks to some of the Ad Astra Rocket team to gain an insight into the company’s ambitions within its Costa Rican and Houston facilities.
Ad Astra Rocket Company, although a small company focuses on finding major solutions to some major global issues. The company, which was founded by retired NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz, currently has two operational facilities, one located in Houston and the other in Costa Rica (Chang Díaz’s country of origin).
As CEO and Chairman of Ad Astra, Díaz seeks to bring his dream of electric transportation to both, earth and space. To do this, Díaz focused each facility on a separate but related mission.
While the Costa Rica office addresses fuel-cell electric transportation based on green hydrogen, the Houston office works on the VASIMR® engine, an electric plasma rocket that has the potential to revolutionise Space travel as we know it.
gasworld spoke to Juan Del Valle, Director of Operations in Costa Rica, Dr Jared Squire, Vice-President of Research in Houston, and Miranda Chang, Global Communications Specialist at Ad Astra Rocket to gain an insight into the company’s recent development and how it hopes to develop in the future, both on earth and outer space.
Since 2011, the company’s Costa Rican office has been growing a fully integrated green hydrogen transportation ecosystem that plays a major role in the nation’s plan to be fully de-carbonised by 2050.
Ad Astra Rocket, along with its major partners, has brought the Central American country many firsts:
As well as reaching numerous milestones within Costa Rica, the company’s Houston facility has also undergone recent achievements with the development of testing of its VASMIR® engine.
“Currently in the space industry, the VASMIR® engine is a leading high-power electric propulsion technology” said Miranda Chang, Global Communications Specialist at Ad Astra Rocket.
“The industry power standard for plasma engines working in space currently is around 5 kW. We are working with power levels of 100 kW and more.”
The Houston team are currently working on several crucial final tests as part of their NASA NextStep Programme contract. After those milestones are achieved, the team expects to move to the design and construction of the first space flight prototype.
Ad Astra Rocket has tested a variety of specialty gases as fuel for the engine, including argon, neon, krypton, hydrogen and helium, as different fuels may be better suited for different missions. However, the main focus has currently been on argon.
The VASMIR® engine could be used for an array of different applications in space, including but not limited to, Near Earth Orbit (NEO) and cislunar cargo transport, satellite maintenance and repair, orbital debris removal, and deep-space robotic and/or human transport.
The birth of the VASIMR® engine goes back to before Díaz became an astronaut. After his time at Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT), where his love and interest in plasma physics bloomed while working on fusion technology, he took on a position at Draper Labs (also in Cambridge MA).
At Draper Labs, Díaz worked on control systems for fusion reactors, such as the Tokamak, where a plasma is confined in a “doughnut” – like magnetic enclosure and heated to millions of degrees.
“Fusion reactors want to create energy by containing plasma for as long as they can until the particles get hot enough to fuse. Our engine concept does not require such containment but rather allows the plasma to shoot out of the engine, creating thrust” said Dr. Jared Squire, Vice-President at Ad Astra Rocket.
Chang Díaz then moved his work from MIT to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre (JSC) in Houston as his astronaut career developed, and after 25 years at NASA, he and his team privatised the project and founded Ad Astra Rocket company. The Houston facility located down the road from NASA JSC was the company’s first build.
The privatisation and growth of the company led to Ad Astra Rocket’s next endeavour, an expansion into Costa Rica. Initially set to support the Houston operation, the Cosa Rica facility quickly found a perfect niche in “on-Earth electric propulsion” in a nation known for its ecological mindset and clean energy infrastructure.
In terms of the company’s involvement in Costa Rica, Ad Astra Rocket recognises that although the country has made major de-carbonisation strides by producing nearly 100% of its electric energy with renewable sources, the Central American country still needs to make major changes to its transportation sector, if it is to reach the 2050 carbon-free goal.
With recent news of Ad Astra’s efforts to further strengthen the hydrogen infrastructure in Costa Rica through three major projects valued at approximately $765,000 it is clear the company is making a major impact.
“Costa Rica still has a significant carbon-footprint, due to other energy sectors, primarily the transport sector. 70% of Costa Rica’s energy consumed is from imported fossil fuels, half of which is used to power the country’s transport sector,” said Juan Del Valle, Ad Astra Operation Director in Costa Rica.
“That’s where Ad Astra comes in. We are the first company to develop a fully sustainable, carbon-free transportation demonstration using green hydrogen from electrolysis and renewable electricity, in Latin America.”
Ad Astra Rocket believes that by implementing more hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles in tandem with battery-operated vehicles, Costa Rica can truly de-carbonise its transportation sector.
“Hydrogen vehicles are electric, but instead of storing energy in a battery, they make electricity on board, in a fuel cell, by combining hydrogen stored in a tank with oxygen from the air. The only biproduct is pure water and the carbon footprint is zero,” said Del Valle.
Ad Astra does however recognise that before alternative options of more environmentally friendly vehicles can be put in place, Costa Rica needs to develop the correct infrastructure to maintain the shift.
“Ad Astra would like to help build that infrastructure, largely in the form of hydrogen dispensing stations. Although the company is also interested and capable of building hydrogen/renewable ecosystems for stationary power as well,” Chang explained to gasworld.
Hydrogen Ecosystem Project
Ad Astra Rocket prides itself in its own ‘Hydrogen Ecosystem Project’ which it would like to install throughout Costa Rica to help its current desire to be a greener country.
“The hydrogen ecosystem is really just that, an ecosystem. It is what we call the process and physical structure that creates hydrogen in a 100% renewable, clean, way. It starts with the use of solar panels and wind turbines producing electrical energy that is fed to our electrolyser which takes plain water and splits it up, producing hydrogen and oxygen,” said Chang.
Once the hydrogen is made, it is fed into Ad Astra’s dispenser and then into the vehicles. The company currently has a hydrogen fuel cell bus at the site, which is supplied by Cummins Inc., one of theone thecompany’s partners; as well as a Toyota Mirai, which belongs to the CEO. Both the bus and the Toyota Mirai are able to be refuelled regularly.
Looking forward, the company’s green eco-system model is what they hope to install regionally to gradually replace the fossil fuel infrastructure.
The Hydrogen Ecosystem Project is not only an ecosystem of hardware components, but also an alliance of public and private partners. Cummins has been a key partner since the start of the project, and has been involved in supporting the development of Ad Astra’s wind turbine, but most importantly by providing the company’s existing hydrogen fuel cell bus. Other partners of the project include Tier One company, Air Liquide.
Another benefit of this movement to decarbonise Costa Rica that Ad Astra and the Central American country itself are pushing for, is the opportunity it opens for both jobs to be created in the country as well as businesses to expand to Costa Rica. This movement could make Costa Rica one of the first Carbon-Free countries, which would intturn make it one of the leading countries in clean, sustainable living.