From CMOS to Batteries: Past Space Tech Improved Earth Applications

May 19, 2021 by Tyler Charboneau

Pushing technological limitations to extremes can cause benefits beyond its original scope. Looking back at past space technology, it is clear the effects they have had here on Earth.

In the past, advancements in space technology have directly affected technology here on Earth. From CMOS to battery technology, here is a trio of fascinating technologies that came out of space advances but impacted technology at home.


The landing page of NASA's Home and City. An interactive site showing the ways NASA has impacted life on Earth.

The landing page of NASA's Home and City. An interactive site showing the ways NASA has impacted life on Earth. Screenshot used courtesy of NASA


Giving Birth to the CMOS Image Sensor

In the ‘90s, NASA faced an aspirational dilemma. While efforts to capture deep space images had reignited, requisite technologies had grown larger and incredibly power-hungry. Spacecrafts had enjoyed the ability to take scientific-grade pictures for some time. Unfortunately, prevalent charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors at that time had some unique shortcomings. 


A drawing from 1970's of a CCD.

A drawing from the 1970s of a CCD. Image used courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs


Both CMOS sensors and CCD sensors are semiconductors; each type of integrated circuit has integrated pixels for light—and therefore image—capture. Each converts this light into electrical energy via distinct processes. CCD-based spacecraft cameras, however, often require some form of analog-to-digital (ADC) conversion circuitry. This addition increases the camera’s overall footprint, which may be critical when housings lack needed real estate. 

When Eric Fossum took the helm at NASA’s JPL, his vision for CMOS involved consolidation. Accordingly, Fossum’s team crafted a new CMOS sensor that could pack its technologies onto a single chip. Interstellar camera modules shrank as a result. CMOS-based machinery was also lighter and thus easier to haul throughout the cosmos. 


Photobit Corporation's camera-on-a-chip, which, through licensing, uses NASA's CMOS technology.

Photobit Corporation's camera-on-a-chip, which, through licensing, uses NASA's CMOS technology. Image used courtesy of NASA


Furthermore, it’s said that CMOS architecture uses 100 times less power than its CCD equivalent. That’s crucial for spacecraft using solar panels, fuel cells, or batteries as power supplies—where the power is finite and environmental conditions must be favorable. Size and mobile power considerations together, you might see where this is headed. 

Accordingly, electrical engineers have since adapted CMOS technology for smartphone cameras and compact video recorders. Companies are keen on this for several reasons. CMOS pixels provide magnitudes-higher numbers of readouts per shot in a fraction of the time—reducing capture time while streamlining processing. They also produce less noise and sharp detail. 

Additionally, their cooling requirements are much less stringent. This benefit gives chassis designers much more flexibility, especially as triplet camera modules grow more common. A lesser need for both active and passive cooling makes these components easier to use. With GoPro, Apple, Samsung, and others harnessing CMOS sensors, the future could look bright for HD image processing. Users can have their cake and eat it, too—enjoying extended battery life. 

These CMOS sensors have come a long way since Aptina Imaging Corporation’s debut, a 10-megapixel sensor for point-and-shoot cameras. They continue to shrink, grow more efficiently, and offer improved low-light performance in numerous applications. 


Borrowing Technology for Smarter Wind Power

NASA set its sights on yet another goal in the 90s: extended Mars exploration. This extension in Mars exploration transcended typical rover walks and temporary deployments. The agency’s goal was to transport crew members and house them on the Red Planet for an extended stay. Naturally, life-support systems and facilities require reliable power generation under a variety of conditions. 

One such solution was wind power. Surface winds on Mars average 10 to 20 miles per hour, while dust storms summon gusts exceeding 70 miles per hour (according to the Viking Lander). Turbines can produce plenty of power under these conditions. For example, wind turbines need only 6.7 miles per hour of wind to start generating power—according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. 

NASA scientists placed stock in wind power due to Mars’ dynamic weather conditions. Dust storms not only block out solar radiation but can damage mechanical parts over time. Reinforced turbines can withstand this battering. 

The Mars turbine developmental journey was an odyssey in itself. Testing was completed on the South Pole, as weather conditions were analogous to those on Mars. Engineers contended with high winds, subzero temperatures, and maintenance challenges. The result was a turbine with few moving parts and easy internal access—born from an amalgam of hardy metals and fiberglass. Additionally, the design is low-maintenance and reliable, logging over 2.5 million running hours thus far. 

A power electronics system schematic for the Cold Weather Turbine Project.

A power electronics system schematic for the Cold Weather Turbine Project. Image courtesy of Lynch et al and Northern Power Systems


Dubbed the Northern Power 100, each turbine utilizes 6+ mile-per-hour winds to power 25 to 30 homes. The turbine has since been adapted for numerous climates and environments while retaining installation flexibility. The developers of Northern Power highlight its unique compatibility with Italy and the UK. However, 25 US states and four nations overall harness these wind turbines. 

The brainchild of NASA and Northern Power is slated to gain a global foothold. The introduction of the Northern Power 60 model hopes to bolster this. 


Battery Advancements Power Clean Energy

Lastly, an original 1985 NASA Spinoff technology—the iron-chromium battery—has gained acclaim in the decades following its invention. Lawrence Thaller’s original design blended fuel cell and battery technologies, resulting in a redox storage system. 

This rechargeable system leverages a segmented reaction chamber and has since been overhauled following a 2008 redesign. Deeya Energy Inc. pushed forward with an improved liquid cell configuration as part of its I-cell creation. These boast higher capacities and durability than their predecessors. 

These I-cells have been integral in dynamic, high-temperature environments that can challenge other chemistries. Lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries are comparatively more susceptible to fluctuations. They’re also many times more expensive. 

A Certified Space Technology, I-cells were created as alternative energy sources for extended space flight. Since then, telecommunications companies have leveraged them for backup power. Wind farms near Tasmania and beyond have used these cells to sustain uptime. It’s expected that these systems can work for villages and in the countryside where power resources might be lacking. 

Deeya also highlighted grid-connected applications as a potential avenue over ten years ago. Iron-chromium redox technology has been negatively impacted, in certain instances, by “sluggish redox reactions and vulnerability to the hydrogen evolution reaction (HER).” However, EEs might see promise yet. By adding bismuth nanoparticles as a catalyst, the efficiency and resiliency of these systems have dramatically improved. This improvement might give commercial engineers an incentive to investigate iron-chromium flow batteries more closely. 


An Interstellar Muse

Though there is a more exhaustive list of technologies ported from space to Earth, NASA and its partners have a reputation of bringing exciting new technologies to consumers and businesses at some point, following their development. These have inspired wide-ranging breakthroughs—as many innovations have been jumping-off points for refinements or full-blown reconfigurations. 

It’s not practical to segregate space technology from terrestrial technology. Researchers are a curious bunch, and developments with diverse potential may just become tomorrow’s building blocks. The sky is the limit, and time will tell what new advancements will come out of today's "Space Race," especially with the Perseverance landing and Space X's efforts. 



Interested in current space advances? Read more down below.

Powering Perseverance: How NASA Provides Electricity to a Rover on Mars

How SpaceX’s Starlink Project Seeks to Bridge the “Digital Divide”

With a Legacy of 70 Years in Space, Renesas-Intersil Sends Rad-Hard ICs Aboard Perseverance