Thermal insulation systems
Quest Thermal Group was born out of work Kopelove and his co-founders started at the since-shuttered Quest Product Development Corporation. "In 2006, an aerospace engineer from Ball Aerospace came to us and said, 'I've got this wacky idea and I don't know how to work on it,'" says Kopelove.
This idea for "a better multi-layer insulation system" was initially funded by Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from NASA. Quest Thermal spun off as a standalone company in 2012.
The team was testing a functioning prototype in six months as part of the initial Phase I SBIR funding, then subsequently received Phase II and Phase III grants that propelled the product to market. "We've now had 32 contracts with NASA to develop new technology for them," says Kopelove.
Utilizing patented spacers in between layers of aluminized polymer, Quest Thermal's highly engineered Integrated MultiLayer Insulation (IMLI) represents a giant leap from the status quo. "It is the first advanced, super-high-performance insulation in about 50 years," says Kopelove. "We're two to three times better than the prior state-of-the-art."
The product changes the game for storing cryogenic propellants like liquid hydrogen and liquid methane. "If you don't keep the heat away from these, then they'll warm up and boil off and go away," says Kopelove. "If you launch an Atlas Centaur from ULA [United Launch Alliance], it could only coast for eight hours, because you boil off too much fuel. Well, now they're talking about needing to protect this stuff for months at a time."
The product has been on three spaceflights to date, including the agency's mission to Jupiter on the Lucy spacecraft and a demonstration of in-space cryogenic propellant transfer, with more projects in the pipeline. "We're going to insulate NASA's next Hubble-grade space telescope, the one that they're working on after James Webb, called the Roman Space Telescope," says Kopelove.
IMLI will also insulate the upcoming Near-Earth Object Surveyor, slated for launch in 2026. "Its whole mission is to look for asteroids that might be on a collision path with our planet," says Kopelove.
Manufacturing takes place in clean rooms at Quest Thermal's 5,000-square-foot facility in Arvada. "We build it in-house in our facility," says Kopelove.
IMLI involves "a more difficult manufacturing process than the old state-of-the-art," he adds. "Our system is 100 percent engineered, so we bring CAD in, we design our blanket specifically to CAD, we build templates -- either forms or fixtures -- so it's a somewhat complicated manufacturing process."
The company relies on partners to make the proprietary spacers. "It's a difficult part to make because of our demands," says Kopelove. Manufacturing requires "a very challenging micro injection molding process" that is outsourced to a contract partner in Huntsville, Alabama.
Kopelove says Quest Thermal has been "more or less cash-flow positive" since its founding as it's transitioned from SBIR grants to contracts with NASA as well as companies like Blue Origin and Ball Aerospace. "We've moved on to actually supplying the product to the aerospace prime," he says. "There is a big growth factor."
Challenges: Hiring engineers and technicians is at the top of the list. "Lately, it seems just getting qualified people is a challenge," says Kopelove. "Certainly, experience might be preferable, but this is all trainable."
Bringing the cost down by scaling manufacturing is an ongoing challenge. "The economics of us manufacturing right now means our product, while very clearly the best, is also clearly the most expensive," says Kopelove.
"Before we had our first spaceflight, we were doing small, one-by-one projects. Really, our product is custom engineered and designed, so it's often a one-off no matter what, but we are reaching the point where we are scaling manufacturing up to large volumes. We're now doing full-size lunar landers and stuff like that, so one of our next big challenges is automation."
Opportunities: To get back to the Moon -- and to make it to Mars -- NASA envisions refueling spacecraft en route, and orbital refueling systems require better thermal insulation. "You can't carry enough fuel from here to do everything you want to do -- to go land on the Moon and operate for months at a time, and take off and come back," says Kopelove. "There's a concept that's been kicked around for 10-plus years of orbital fuel depots. Well, that means zero boil-off."
He also points to "non-space applications for our technology," citing liquid hydrogen storage for air and ground transportation and refrigerator and freezer technology as targets. "Hydrogen as a fuel economy, it's going to get here. There are still some problems to solve, but it's going to get here because it's really clean burning."
Needs: Beyond more employees, Quest Thermal needs more facility space. The current 5,000-square-foot building is nearing capacity. "We're going to outgrow it in a year or two," says Kopelove.