Apollo Fusion Inc., underneath its Silicon Valley sheen, might be hiding a secret. Founded in 2016 by a professor of aerospace engineering and a VP of Google, the startup is attempting to design a superior and more cost-efficient propulsion system for rocket engines that could use mercury as a fuel.
The concept of using mercury as a fuel is not exactly new. NASA considered it in the 1960s, during the Space Electric Propulsion Test (SERT) missions, but the space agency dropped the plan as it would have led to contaminations on the ground. Even a small dose of mercury can affect an individual’s IQ, damage the immune system of individuals of all ages, and impair their cognitive functions. Nevertheless, despite the safety hazards, it has been agreed by the industry experts that the element has better performance than well-known alternatives like xenon and krypton. Mercury is heavier than both the elements, which are currently being used to fuel ion engines. Hence, a rocket system using mercury would be able to produce more thrust.
The two-year-old space startup, which is based in Mountain View, California, has already raised $10 million in venture funding, led by LinkedIn Corp. co-founder Reid Hoffman, in order to develop the breakthrough technology. Michael Cassidy, co-founder and CEO of Apollo Fusion reassured Bloomberg, who originally detailed the story: “We are also dedicated to keeping up a low impact on the Earth.”
On Earth, the standards with respect to mercury use are rigorous. The US government constrains the use of mercury in batteries and demands coal power plants to use gear that eliminates mercury from exhaust fumes. In addition, 128 nations signed the Minamata Convention, a treaty that intends to reduce mercury emissions.
The admonition here is that the standards don’t have any significant bearing to Earth’s environment–particularly to satellites, which are under the horizon of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC does not supervise substances launched into space. “It’s an administrative blind spot sufficiently enormous to launch a satellite through,” says Kevin Bell, staff counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a non-profit environmental protection organization.
Up until this point, more than 80,000 satellites have flown in orbit, and roughly 2,000 stays operational. Nonetheless, the numbers are relied upon to grow exponentially. For instance, SpaceX intends to launch more than 4,000 satellites in order to provide its own low-cost and high-speed Internet service. Different organizations have filed applications to send in more 20,000 satellites in the next decade.
Competitors worry that if the company’s purportedly breakthrough technology were widely used-by, the impact on the environment could be prominent. A constellation of 1,000 satellites would emit 20 metric tons of mercury, in comparison to the entire U.S. which emits about 50 metric tons of mercury each year; whereas, the entire population of the world generates around 2,000 metric tons. The contention against the mercury-driven technology centers around the fact that mercury would, in the long run, come back to Earth, contaminating seas and soil. “Mercury is a very heavy element and almost all of it that you put up there will eventually find its way down,” says Steve Brooks, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Right now, the technology and organizations who are working with Apollo haven’t been disclosed yet, and more announcements are most likely on its way. The main point is this: if Apollo succeeds, they can be opening the door for high-power, low-cost propulsion systems for satellites and rocket. In the event that they are not, notwithstanding, they risk to create a toxic atmosphere on our planet, which would take around billions of dollars to clean up.