Interview with Giacomo Cao, who coordinates a project sponsored by the Italian Space Agency. By Andrea Mameli, on Sardinews, July-August 2011.
Sardinews proposes in these pages (published in the June issue) was widely read in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, especially in Boston, Princeton, Pittsburgh, New York, Phoenix, Montreal, London, Birmingham, Oxford, Cambridge and Perth in Australia. Upon request of some readers, we are happy to publish its English version, translated by prof. Giacomo Cao (University of Cagliari).
Sardinia gets into the development of new technologies for human space exploration. Specifically, the Cagliari University, together with CRS4, is working on the development of new technologies which are able to exploit mineral resources available on Moon, Mars and asteroids. Sardinews spoke with the coordinator of such research activities, Giacomo Cao (see picture), professor of Chemical Engineering at the School of Engineering. prof. Cao, among the results recently achieved in this field, is one of the co-author of a patent whose title is “Process for the fabrication of physical assets to obtain civil and industrial structures on Moon and Martian soils”. It has been filed on July 2010 as a joint patent between University of Cagliari and Italian Space Agency. Two months ago the filed patent has been positively evaluated by the European Patent Office.
What is your patent about?
“The patent has been conceived in the framework of the Cosmic project, sponsored by the Italian Space Agency since the end of 2009 and consists in the development of new technologies for the fabrication of physical assets to obtain civil and industrial structures on Moon and Martian soils. The process is based on the exploitation of mineral resources available on Moon and Mars soils, ilmenite and iron oxides respectively, which can be employed to produce the desired physical assets. The main step of the patented process has been tested last October in Bordeaux (France) during the 53rd parabolic flight campaign where it has been possible to perform experiments under microgravity conditions on board of a suitable Airbus 300 during the 30 parabolas pertaining to each of the 3 mission accomplished.”
Who did participate to the project?
“Beside the Cagliari University (Unica) where the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials has been involved, the other partners who gave their valuable contribution in the project are: the Department of Energy and Transport of the National Research Council (Det-Cnr), the Research Centre of development, advanced studies in Sardinia (CRS4), the Technical High School “Enrico Fermi” placed in Fuscaldo (Cosenza), the companies Corem Srl and SpaceLand Srl. The patent inventors are: Giacomo Cao (Unica), Alessandro Concas (CRS4), Gianluca Corrias (Unica), Roberto Orrù (Unica), Massimo Pisu (CRS4), Claudio Zanotti (Det-Cnr).”
Is the obtained result a recognition for the research activity performed in Sardinia?
“That’s for sure. When we talk about research fields where the technology content and the competition are quite relevant, the collaboration among the actors who are involved at the regional level becomes a strategic choice and provides highly recognized results. There is still a long way to go, however it seems to me that the interaction between CRS4 and the Sardinian Universities has been strengthen during the years in both scientific/technologic and educational terms.”
What are the perspectives for Sardinia as long as this type of research is concerned?
Sardinia can play a crucial role in the field of human exploration of space. The patent recently filed as well as those ones that can be developed in the next future represent an ideal starting point which strongly characterizes Sardinia in this field among the other players. It should be mentioned in fact that the more important national actors, such as Thales Alenia, a Finmeccanica Company, and Carlo Gavazzi Space, did start only recently the corresponding research investments. In addition, it is important to note that a Sardinian small enterprise, i.e. Corem Srl, has been involved in the COSMIC project. Many others will be able to provide their own contribution which will clearly enhance the future employment opportunities. It should be also pointed out that the role played by the University of Cagliari and CRS4 in the development of new technologies for human space exploration will clearly provide to Sardinia a high visibility both at the national and international level in a high-technology field which is able to capture the collective imagination.”
How about your recent request to the President Napolitano and all the Sardinian members of the Italian Parliament?
“Recently we have been asking the President Napolitano, the Cabinet as well as all the members of the Italian Parliament, their highly authoritative contribution to start a comprehensive Italian project, hopefully sponsored by the Italian Space Agency, which is aimed, through the involvement of all possible expertise available, to the development of new technologies for the human space exploration. Our country, along with the Sardinian contribution, can display its capabilities and know-how to reach, through a project of this type, important goals as far as the future space missions in the next 10-15 years on Moon, Mars or asteroids are concerned. In this context we wish that the Sardinian members of the Italian Parliament could spend their position in favour of this initiative which will provide interesting fallouts which would have been unpredictable only few year ago in Sardinia.”
Is there anything else from the technological innovation point of view?
“Of course. It seems to me that the research groups I am coordinating both at the University and the Crs4 have been able to provide their invaluable contribution to the establishment of three highly innovative companies: Im (Innovative Materials) Srl, Dnm (Dense Nanostructured Materials) Srl and BT (Biomedical Tissues) Srl. The first two, with legal and operative address in Sestu (Cagliari), are involved in the production of innovative materials also characterized by nanometric microstructure. Specifically, their strength is based on the use, among the other technologies, of the one known as SPS “Spark Plasma Sintering”, which is not yet widespread in Europe. If one thinks that two of the about ten apparatuses available in the old continent are currently in use in the companies mentioned above, it clearly appears where it is possible to find the corresponding expertise. It is interesting to recall at this point that the first apparatus based on the SPS technology came in Cagliari for the first time in 2003 in the framework of a research project I was coordinating through Promea Scarl. The companies Im Srl and Dnm Srl are able to produce a wide spectrum of advanced materials on the basis of their know-how as well as patented technologies, among which we could mention the so called Uhtc (Ultra High Temperature Ceramics) materials, ideal candidates for the nose cap of the hypersonic re-entry vehicles, the best “metallic” superconductor magnesium diboride, as well as strontium/iron mixed titanates which represent competitive materials for the lambda sensors used in internal combustion engines to guarantee the ratio air/fuel at the optimal level.”
How about BT Srl?
“The company, with operative address at Sardegna Ricerche, which supports the Regional Government’s policies for research, innovation and technology development, and manages Polaris, the island’s Science and Technology Park, is involved, among the very few ones in Italy, in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. The latter one is an emerging multidisciplinary field involving biology, medicine, and engineering that is likely to improve the health and quality of life for millions of people worldwide by restoring, maintaining, or enhancing tissue and organ function. Just to give an example, the company is able to provide its contribution towards the development of transplants of new autologous cells, particularly chondrocites, which are needed to restore cartilage damages. BT Srl, through the interaction with CRS4 and the Interdipartimental Center of Environmental Science and Engineering of the Cagliari University, has been also able to develop and patent in 2008 a process for the production of bio-oil which accounts for the carbon dioxide sequestration from industrial plants. The process is based on the use of microalgae from which it is possible to extract bio-oil characterized by the same composition of the one obtained for example from sunflower seeds. In addition to bio-oil, the patented process is also aimed to extract highly valuable products for the health, biomedical and zootechnical industry. It looks like as a very positive survey for our Sardinia. Of course I have been talking about the initiatives related to technology innovation I know better but there many others which increase the prestige of our island.”
Andrea Mameli, Sardinews, July-August 2011