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Mining in space

Jonathan Lun (BSc Eng 2006, PhD 2015) has won a challenge issued by Singularity University to make a positive impact on the lives of Southern Africans through technological innovation.

The engineer has developed an idea for a “vacuum arc thruster” which could power a craft that could return to Earth with metals mined from asteroids. This has won him a scholarship to SingularityU’s nine-week Global Solutions Programme in Silicon Valley.

SingularityU describes itself as “a global community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges”.

“The idea of using asteroid metal as fuel for an asteroid mining transportation system came to me soon after I completed my initial MSc research into vacuum arc plasma thrusters,” says Jonathan. “I quietly mulled over it for a few years before deciding to actively learn all I could about this specific rocket propulsion technology. So I signed up to do a PhD at Wits and built facilities and several prototypes in an effort to improve the current state of the art. I am extremely grateful to Dr Phil Ferrer and other staff from the School of Physics, Mechanical (Prof Craig Law) and Electrical Engineering (Prof Ivan Hofsajer, Dr Michael Grant) and iThemba Labs for all their generous support during that time.

“Finally, I was able to demonstrate a small hand-sized propulsion system that could use a simple rod of iron as fuel to produce an efficient jet of thrust, comparable to the performance of more established satellite propulsion systems. There are still many more technical hurdles to overcome, but the basic technology was proven and showed great potential. Wits Enterprise is currently filing for an international patent on some of the research.”

Childhood dreams

Jonathan’s dreams of space exploration began during his childhood in Kensington, Johannesburg. After his mechanical engineering degree at Wits, he joined the satellite engineering programme at Stellenbosch and later joined the South African National Space Agency. In 2011, he returned to Wits to continue researching space thruster technology for his PhD. In 2013, he was recognised by the International Astronautical Federation as an Emerging Space Leader. He is now a senior mechanical engineer at Denel Spaceteq, where he helps design Earth science and observation satellites.

“I’ve always had dreams to change the world and use the best of my abilities for the good of mankind,” he says. “The SingularityU competition fitted perfectly with my aspirations. I’m absolutely thrilled and honoured to be offered this life-changing experience. The world suddenly feels full of possibility. The support from friends, family and colleagues has been astounding and I hope to make them, Wits and South Africa proud.

“I encourage Witsies to join the recently formed SingularityU local chapters in Joburg and Cape Town. They have scheduled events throughout the year and it is a great opportunity to meet and engage with inspiring and energetic people who want to be a force for good.”

  • This year, for the first time, South Africa is hosting the Singularity University Global Summit. The summit is SU’s flagship event, and is a chance to join a world-class collection of thinkers, leaders and doers to help redefine the future of business, technology, and humanity. 
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