Space could be the right place for magnetic gears

Unable to gain a foothold in traditional applications, a round of testing aboard the ISS National Lab might show the promise of the technology.

Gear manufacturing startup FluxWorks has been invited to test its non-contact magnetic gearboxes on the International Space Station (ISS).

The company is a recipient of the Technology in Space Prize, funded by Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).

Selected through the MassChallenge startup accelerator program, it will use the unparalleled research environment available through the ISS National Lab to further its research and technology development efforts to develop and commercialize noncontact magnetic gearboxes for use in extreme environments in a wide range of applications.

“Advancing mechanical innovations of noncontact magnetic gear technology will benefit human life in both the harsh environment of space and terrestrial environments,” said Scott Copeland, director for ISS research integration at Boeing.

Magnetic gears aren’t new, with the first patent for the technology being filed in the 1950s. They use magnetic fields to transmit mechanical power between rotating shafts. Unlike traditional mechanical gears that rely on physical teeth to transfer motion and torque, magnetic gears operate without direct contact between the components, which reduces wear, friction and the need for lubrication. Magnetic gears are mostly maintenance-free and have the potential for a long lifespan.

But magnetic gearboxes have some specific downsides that limit their use in standard applications. They tend to be expensive to make and complex to design, and they don’t integrate well as retrofits into existing technology. They also have less torque density and tend to be less efficient than mechanical gears, with factors such as hysteresis and eddy currents reducing output efficiency and overall torque density. These gears also tend to have issues with heat dissipation.

But with the growing interest in electric-powered aviation and industrial processes taking the leap from terrestrial operations to space, the research into this technology is growing in importance and is attracting new funding.

FluxWorks joins a growing community of researchers leveraging the final frontier to explore new possibilities and showcase the potential of space-based research. Since the prize’s inception, approximately $20 million has been awarded for more than 30 projects, many of which have already launched to the space station.

“We are tremendously proud of our partnership with the ISS National Lab and Boeing and are thrilled to play a role in helping high-potential startups take advantage of the opportunity to harden their solutions by conducting tests in a microgravity environment,” said Will Magruder, vice president of partnerships for MassChallenge. “Thanks to this partnership, novel technologies continue to help improve life on Earth and beyond.”

Funding awarded to the 2023 recipients will provide seed funding and assist with hardware costs for flight projects using ISS National Lab flight and crew time allocation.

FluxWorks will leverage the space station to test and qualify the performance of a new noncontact magnetic gear. The magnetic gear will be tested in several scenarios to assess startup behavior, dynamic operation, vibrational characteristics and seal and bearing behavior in microgravity. Gearboxes aim to reduce the mass of motors required in a variety of applications; however, the lubricant doesn’t work in extreme environments like space. Magnetic gears do not require lubricant, making them an appealing alternative. This project aims to validate the technology’s suitability for use in space applications.