Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a different high-tech difference maker. This week, meet STEVEN BERG, founder of Froberg Aerospace, a developer and provider of small-satellite propulsion technologies that just opened an office in the University of Illinois Research Park.
Your startup offers 'small satellite developers never-before-realized capabilities in terms of mission flexibility, rapid concept-to-orbit, and the ability to change satellite mission requirements on the fly.' How have you developed this technology?
It essentially started back in 2010 when I was a first-year graduate student at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo. There was this interesting concept of "dual-mode" or "multi-mode" spacecraft propulsion, where you would do chemical and electric rocket propulsion with the same fuel (propellant). I thought that was an interesting problem, so I dedicated my research to it and eventually invented a propellant that could theoretically do both modes.
What happened next?
The next year of my master's degree was spend actually synthesizing this propellant and testing its capabilities, and the results looked promising. I decided to do a Ph.D. (also at Missouri S&T) continuing the research, and we not only showed capability in both modes, but also designed a single thruster that can do both modes. After a stint in industry working on rockets of a different sort, I returned to Missouri to continue to work on this concept. I, along with a co-founder, formed Froberg Aerospace in 2016 to continue to pursue the concept. We were awarded a NASA SBIR Phase I in 2017, where we tested and proved the thruster concept in its most basic form, and as a result, were awarded the follow-on Phase II to scale up the concept.
This project will further development of a thruster that can operate in different modes. What's the advantage of this?
Chemical propulsion is what most people think about when they think about rockets. I think everyone has seen the Saturn V or space shuttle, and the rockets on those are chemical rockets. Essentially, they utilize the chemical energy of propellants. These are ignited and combust, and then the resulted gases are driven out of nozzle in a fiery exhaust. This creates lots of thrust but isn't really that efficient in terms of fuel usage. Alternatively, electric propulsion uses electric and magnetic fields to accelerate an ionized gas out of the spacecraft. This is much more fuel efficient, but you can only exhaust a low amount of fuel at a time, so the thrust is low. With electric propulsion, you can go further in space, but it takes longer compared to chemical propulsion.
Typically, propulsion systems are either chemical or electric, not both. The selection of the propulsion system is based on the desired mission and the spacecraft is designed around the propulsion system, more or less. Our multi-mode system allows the operator to choose chemical or electric propulsion on the fly. This can be either during the spacecraft design phase as a result of changes in requirements or design adjustments, or even in orbit as mission needs evolve in real time. So you don't really need to design around the propulsion system. You can just change the mode or order of maneuvers to meet the mission goal, rather than selecting or designing a tailor made propulsion system beforehand. Essentially, it's one-size-fits-most propulsion.
Why did you choose 'green' ionic liquid propellant?
Most people probably have never heard the term "ionic liquid," so I will explain that first. Sodium chloride, NaCL, commonly known as table salt, is an ionic compound, where sodium is the positive ion and chlorine is the negative anion. It is solid at room temperature, but if you heat it to 600 C, it melts into a liquid. An ionic liquid is the same concept, but the compound is a liquid at room temperature. This is advantageous to us, because under an electric field, we can actually extract the ions from the liquid and use them for electric propulsion. Additionally, if you mix two ionic liquids in the right amounts (one fuel and one oxidizer), they will actually combust upon heating, so we can use them for chemical propulsion also. "Green" means environmentally friendly, and a lot of spacecraft propellants historically have been extremely toxic. You don't want to be anywhere near them without a full protective suit and dedicated oxygen supply. There has been a big effort in the industry to move away from these types of propellants and toward a more "green" type of propellant. Ionic liquids are naturally less toxic because they have essentially no vapor pressure, so you don't have to worry about breathing in any toxic gases when working near them. We felt that any new propellant we introduced should at minimum meet the state of the art, so an ionic liquid was a good choice not only in terms of performance but also in ease of handling.
You've completed a successful SBIR Phase I and have been awarded a follow-on SBIR Phase II for your flagship technology. What will you do with these seed funding resources?
The Small Business Innovation Research program is a great way to take an idea from theory to commercialization. In Phase I, we showed proof of concept. For Phase II, we plan to develop the concept to the point it is ready for commercialization. We plan to refine the thruster design, build the thruster and put it through its paces on the test stand. The SBIR Phase II award is funded for two years and the goal is to show the thruster can operate in an environment similar to space and at a high performance in both chemical and electric modes. After we meet that goal, we can then start sales and production.
Is Froberg also in Missouri? Or has the Research Park drawn you here?
We were headquartered in Missouri until December of last year. I took a postdoctoral fellowship at the UI after the Phase I concluded, so I moved to Champaign-Urbana. We found out we were actually awarded the Phase II and made the decision to stay in Champaign-Urbana. The UI Research Park, particularly EnterpriseWorks, was our first choice when scoping out potential locations because it really has quite a lot of great resources for entrepreneurs. We are grateful they've welcomed us enthusiastically and I think we're going to benefit a ton from that relationship.
Who else is on your team?
Right now, it is just myself and my business partner, Dr. Joshua Rovey, who is an associate professor in the Aerospace Engineering Department at the UI. In the next month or two, we are bringing on a part-time researcher and are also excited to have a commitment from a former colleague from Missouri S&T who will join the team after he finishes his Ph.D. degree this next fall.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?
I have lots of advice, but I think I can distill it down to this: Don't be afraid to ask for help. One vital part in the early stages is to get in touch with potential customers and ask them if your business idea actually solves a problem they have. Often, they will even help you refine your idea, or you may even come up with a better idea after their input. This costs zero dollars. The only cost is sweat equity, and it's the most important part in starting a business. But I also add to my advice: Never hesitate to ask for help. You don't arrive at those answers simply without prior experience. That's why I advise you to just ask someone who's done it before. It saves so much time and removes any doubt so you can focus on the most important parts of your business.
Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from in your early years?
Sure, tons of mistakes. And if you're going at it right, you're learning from each and every one of those mistakes and not dwelling on the fact that you made one. I will give one example from when I was an intern at a rocket company earlier in my career. I was tasked to determine thruster response for a cold-gas attitude-control-system thruster. Basically, I had to charge a gas pressure behind a valve, then open the valve and let the gas exhaust through an orifice. Then I had to design similar hardware to the actual system. I decided to pick the size of the orifice based on a design I found in documentation I did not fully understand. I did the tests and the results looked great, so I thought nothing of it. About a month later, my boss comes over and says, "GNC looked at those results and they seem way off from what they've seen before." Well, I had used the wrong orifice size because I failed to ask someone who had designed the actual hardware (who worked less than 20 feet away from my desk, by the way). So that goes back to my advice: Don't be afraid to ask for help. I learned to verify even if I'm 100 percent sure of a fact myself. Also, don't panic if you do make a mistake. In my situation, we worked the problem, found the root cause, adjusted the data for the proper orifice size without having to retest, and it worked out just fine.
TECH TIDBITS ... with STEVEN BERG
Do you have interests in social media? Are your startups on any of them? Froberg Aerospace is currently on Facebook (Froberg Aerospace LLC) and Instagram (@frobergaerospace), although they haven't been updated in a while. We hope to provide more updates as we make progress during the Phase II.
What's your favorite app? I would say Reddit. I pretty much get most of my news and also random entertainment from that now.
On Facebook and Instagram I follow: Of course, my friends and family. My sports teams: St. Louis Blues and Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs. I follow chefs such as Rene Redzepi (has a fantastic Instagram account), Massimo Battura, David Chang, Virgilio Martinez and Anthony Bordain (a big inspiration, and may he rest in peace).
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Book, though I've never tried Kindle or had an intense desire to. I'm reading "The Three Body Problem" by Cixin Liu, but it's been a slow go on that one because I've been so busy lately.
Do you have any wearable electronics? The only wearable I have is my heart rate monitor for my cycling workouts. I have been considering a smartwatch, as my girlfriend swears by it, but overall, I'm slow to adopt new things.
Do you have an entrepreneurial hero? I have several. I feel compelled to start with Elon Musk, as I used to work for him, but mostly for his passion for technology and pushing the envelope above and beyond and the way he exudes that feeling into every aspect of his companies. Jeff Bezos for basically proving that you can develop an idea and turn it into one of the biggest companies in the world. Also, Mark Cuban (I have watched a lot of "Shark Tank") because of his attitude and critical thinking, and also because he's a sports fanatic like me.