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Posted at 01:04 PM ET, 12/21/2011

Small firms nab NASA funding through newly rescued SBIR program

One week ago, lawmakers struck a deal to rescue two small business research programs, each of which requires certain government agencies to allocate a portion of their research budgets for small business contracts. Both were set to expire last week, but a late compromise helped reauthorize and expand the programs.


The company behind one of the extended SBIR projects said it hopes a new liquid fuel will improve satellite maneuverability while in orbit. (EADS Astrium - DAPD)
What we learned was that the Small Business Research program, the larger of the pair, distributed approximately $2.5 billion in funding to small firms last year. We also learned that SBIR-nurtured firms consistently account for a quarter of all United States R&D 100 Awards, recognizing the most significant research advances each year.

But we didn’t know exactly what research was at stake — until now.

On Monday, NASA announced plans to award a second round of SBIR funding to 79 small technology firms working on a total of 85 research projects. Each company has already completed early-stage research on new technology using an initial phase of funding, and each will now receive up to $1 million to further develop and demonstrate the effectiveness of their tools. In total, NASA values the selected projects at approximately $63 million.

So what are all those small businesses doing with all that money? What type of research takes place thanks largely to these recently rescued programs? We spoke to representatives at four of these small companies to find out exactly what they’re working on and how their technology could benefit both the space agency and commercial enterprises.

Company: Physical Sciences, Inc.

Location / Employees: Andover, Mass. / 120

What they’re building (technically): Green Liquid Monopropellant Thruster for In-space Propulsion

What they’re building (not so technically): A new environmentally friendly liquid fuel used to maneuver small objects while they are in orbit. “We’re basically proposing a liquid propellant to replace an existing propellent that is comprised of really bad stuff,” Physical Sciences’ chief executive David Green said. “Most of the current propellants are made of a nasty chemical called hydrazine, and ours would be easier to handle and easier on the environment.”

Potential commercial applications: Developing more reliable communication satellites.

Company: Creare, Inc.

Location / Employees: Hanover, N.H. / 120

What they’re building (technically): Ultra Low Power Cryo-Refrigerator for Space and Advanced Wet Expansion Turbines for Hydrogen Liquefaction

What they’re building (not so technically): An engine that coverts hydrogen gas into liquid hydrogen for use as rocket fuel and an extremely low-temperature, lightweight refrigerator used to cool camera sensors that take pictures in space. “Infrared image sensors, like the ones used to take pictures of far-off objects and galaxies, are usually highly susceptible to noise and fuzziness for a variety of reasons,” Creare chief executive Jim Barry said. “But keeping those sensors at very low temperatures can help reduce that noise and produce clearer images.”

Potential commercial applications: Building more efficient energy production and storage facilities.

Company: Arkansas Power Electronics International, Inc.

Location / Employees: Fayetteville, Ark. / 32

What they’re building (technically): Extreme Environment SiC Wireless Sensor Suite for Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Engines

What they’re building (not so technically): A wireless sensor that can operate at extremely high temperatures inside the nuclear thermal propulsion engines designed to take next-generation rockets into space. “Current sensors are made mostly of silicon and begin to fail at around 150 or 175 degrees Celsius,” APEI research engineer Jie Yang said. “But it’s important to still get measurements of temperature, pressure, gas composition and other readings, and our new sensor is designed to work in harsh environments, even up to 450 degrees Celsius.”

Potential commercial applications: Creating harsh-environment sensors for use in oil-drilling and power-generation turbines.

Company: Fine Structure Technology LLC

Location / Employees: Austin, Tex. / 3

What they’re building (technically): MEMS Gyroscope with Interferometric Detection

What they’re building (not so technically): A relatively low-cost tool used to measure the position and angular movement of rockets as they launch into space. “Gyroscopes are used as a backup to GPS systems to track rockets heading up into the atmosphere,” Fine Structure Technology owner Matthew Ellis said. “Our design would be a less expensive model than the ones used today, and it has a new measurement detection system that uses lasers rather than voltage readings.”

Potential commercial applications: Developing more effective petroleum exploration techniques.

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By  |  01:04 PM ET, 12/21/2011

 
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