The European Physical Society (EPS) Plasma Physics Innovation Prize was established in 2008 to recognize and promote the wider benefits to society that arise from the applications of plasma physics research. The prize is awarded once a year and is managed by EPS Plasma Physics Division Board, where our group leader Prof. Mervi Mantsinen is a member since 2021.
This year, the EPS Plasma Physics Innovation Prize has been awarded to Dr Ane Aanesland, Dr Dmytro Rafalskyi and Javier Martínez Martínez for the technological, industrial and societal applications of research in plasma physics through their pioneering development of iodine-fueled plasma-based electric propulsion systems for satellites.
Dr Aanesland and Dr Rafalskyi pioneered the use of iodine as a propellant for innovative satellite electric propulsion systems. Based on research work they originally performed at the Laboratoire de Physique des Plasmas at Ecole Polytechnique in France, they founded the company ThrustMe in 2017 to commercialize a new iodine propulsion technology. The system developed makes use of solid iodine propellant, which is then sublimated to form iodine gas. A plasma is created using a radio-frequency inductive antenna, and iodine ions are extracted and accelerated with a set of high-voltage grids to produce thrust. After several years of development, the world’s first iodine electric propulsion system was launched into space on 6th November 2020 and subsequently successfully demonstrated in orbit. Their results have been published in Nature, and have created intense media interest and significant commercial traction demonstrating the importance of this new technology.
It is estimated that more than 24 000 satellites will be launched into space over the next ten years, with most requiring onboard propulsion systems. High-performance electric propulsion often uses xenon propellant, but anticipated space industry demand is expected to soon outpace supply and so it is critical that a viable replacement propellant be found. Iodine was identified over twenty years ago as a possible alternative to xenon, and it has recently been demonstrated in space with ThrustMe’s successful in-orbit flight.
Not only is global iodine production significantly higher than xenon, but its cost is about 100x lower and it can be stored unpressurized as a solid. This introduces significant design and operational advantages, and enables propulsion system miniaturization and simplification. The use of iodine however creates several complex challenges, which have required innovative solutions and fundamental physics investigations. Javier Martínez Martínez played a critical role by solving problems associated with corrosion, storage in space, and flow control.
“It is impressive to see how Ane and Dmytro have taken their fundamental plasma research and, with the help of Javier, and the rest of the ThrustMe team, turned this into a product that is now available on the market and which has already gained significant commercial traction since its first demonstration in space”
— EPS Plasma Physics Division