The space age was built on clever materials. The business ends of rocket engines are composed of Inconel, a family of heat-and-corrosion-resistant nickel-chromium alloys developed in the 1940s. The “gold foil” adorning many satellites is, in fact, a form of insulation made from layers of Kapton and metallised Mylar, a pair of artificial polymers from the 1950s and 1960s. SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft use a heat shield made of phenolic-impregnated carbon to protect astronauts during atmospheric re-entry.
But it is not just humans in lab coats who can come up with whizzy substances. Sumitomo Forestry, a Japanese firm, and Kyoto University are pondering the idea of building satellites out of an advanced, high-performance composite made from cellulose and lignin, a pair of complex polymers which are strong in tension and compression respectively. This material is both cheap and abundant. It is self-assembling and requires only simple chemical inputs. Manufacture can be entirely automated, requiring no human oversight. Translated from chemist-speak, they want to make satellites out of wood.