Qioptiq Space Technology (QST) may not be a household name, even within the relatively small space industry. But for the last 40 years the British firm has made specialized glass needed for virtually every satellite built. Now it is the only remaining company in the world still making this material.
At a small shop in northern Wales, 80 employees work to produce microglass cover sheets, some thinner than a human hair, that protect satellite solar arrays from ultraviolet, electron and proton radiation. They also make optical solar reflectors that are placed on the sun-facing sides of satellites to reflect and dissipate solar heat. QST is part of global photonics firm Qioptiq, which reported sales of $380 million last year.
The majority of QST’s sales come from commercial firms building geosynchronous communications satellites, and the United States accounts for about 40 percent of its business. The company is a key supplier for a number of U.S. Air Force spacecraft, including the Wideband Global Satcom and Mobile User Objective System fleets.
For many years QST had one competitor in both of its product areas, JDSU of Santa Rosa, Calif., which bought its glass from Corning Inc. The Corning facility in Danville, Va., that produced solar glass shut down in 2009, leaving the United States without a domestic supplier. This concerned the Air Force so much that it paid $1.2 million to acquire a six-year supply of Corning glass before the plant was shuttered. JDSU also stockpiled Corning glass.
Ordinarily being the last remaining manufacturer of essential satellite components would be an enviable position. But QST could soon find itself controlling a growing share of a shrinking market as the desire for high-power space applications drives the development of new materials that threaten the value of the glass products it makes.
David J. Hughes has been QST’s general manager for the past seven years. He spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
How much business does QST do on an annual basis?
We generally bring in anywhere between $10 million and $15 million annually. QST has about 80 percent of the global market for optical solar reflectors, and 65 to 70 percent of the cover glass market. By operating within a purpose-built facility, we’ve consistently maintained a reasonably profitable business. Obviously it’s a niche market that will never be much bigger than it is today. But that’s one of the things that has kept competitors out. The cost of entry is high, and the return on investment is long.
Do you supply Russian and Chinese satellite makers?
We sell to Russia and China. We have to apply each time for an export license in those cases.
What factors contribute to how your business fares?
One of the biggest factors is the global production rate for geosynchronous satellites in a given year. At the moment, the industry has never been busier. We normally see on average 12 to 18 geosynchronous satellites bought per year. There were 30-some orders placed in 2010. That’s an unheard of number. The primes are building to the maximum amount that their facilities will allow. So business is very good at the moment.
But we know production rates we’ve seen over the last three years can’t continue. We haven’t grown our share of the market in that time, but the sheer number of satellites built has been a benefit to us. In the next year or two we’re expecting to see a dip before the cycle picks back up again.
How has the technology underlying your solar cover glass and optical reflectors changed over time?
The physical nature of our glass hasn’t changed a great deal. But it has advanced to keep pace with changes in solar cell technology. For the currently used cells, called triple-junction cells, and the next-generation inverted metamorphic cells, we’ve had to develop coatings and glass to match the way in which they absorb sunlight while providing suitable mechanical strength to withstand launch and long-term exposure to space. So we are always working with not only solar cell manufacturers such as Spectrolab and Emcore, but the large space primes as well, because it is their engineers who feed requirements down to suppliers like us. And that’s new; a decade ago the primes were not as involved in picking the suppliers to their suppliers. We give them facts regarding material properties and transmission data because they really do need to know in detail what our products are going to bring to the table and how they perform at the beginning and end of life. In the past our products were typically procured as commodities, but this has changed. We’ve become much more of a strategic supplier.
Your glass has been used for the same two space applications for 40 years. Are there other markets for your products?
We have been trying for at least the past five years to find another use for our glass. But believe it or not, it’s such a specialized piece of glass that it’s very difficult to find an appropriate alternate use. We have looked at the market for concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) energy systems, where sunlight is magnified to anywhere between 500 and 2,000 times its natural intensity. But the solar cell onto which that sunlight is concentrated is so small that not much of our glass would be needed. At this point the business case does not close even if the global manufacturing capability for these systems were producing at maximum output.
We have also looked at upward integration. We said, “Let’s talk to the solar panel integrators and offer to bond some of our glass onto their cells in the United Kingdom and cover the European market for them.” But the solar cells are worth 20 to 40 times the value of the cover glass, so it would be a big problem if we damaged just one out of 1,000 cells. So we’ve decided against that approach for the time being. It has been very difficult to find areas of growth for our business.
What threats does your business face?
As the U.S. government looks forward to the missions it may be doing in space five or 10 years from now, applications such as high-altitude radar and space-based solar power collection require tremendous amounts of power. Today, a large solar array might generate 20 kilowatts or a bit more. Future missions may require several hundred kilowatts from the solar arrays.
This level of power could come from next-generation solar cells based on inverted metamorphic technology. Though still in development, this technology could lead to foldable solar arrays as thin as aluminum foil and as large as a football field. We are trying to convince cell manufacturers that our glass is needed for these arrays, and we’re evaluating new glass compositions and alternative processes such as a direct bonding technique that would not require adhesive.
Given that there is no longer a domestic cover glass supplier, the Air Force has issued solicitations to industry for cover glass replacement technologies. They are also looking at technologies that could potentially replace our optical solar reflectors.
Though you don’t sell directly to the U.S. government, it is often the end customer. Are you engaged in any of its technology development or planning efforts?
The Air Force has funded small businesses to develop ideas for new products similar to ours. But it has never approached us as one of two companies in the world that successfully commercialized these products and said, “Let’s put some money into the expertise and people that are working on it today. What can you guys think of?” For example, we have divisions within Qioptiq that coat plastics. Why couldn’t we utilize some of the skills we have in space and start looking at some of the plastic materials and coatings?
We don’t see them getting the experts involved in the roadmap. And if we’re not involved in the future, then we have to go away sometime. If they’re worried about their lower-tier suppliers going away, well, get them involved and engaged in their own future. We are ready to support the U.S. government in any way we can.