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From earth to space


Umicore advanced materials make their mark in space exploration and innovation

12th April 2023 marks 62 years since the first human spaceflight. Today, we are living in a second space age, witnessing a new era of space exploration and innovation. This exploration calls for optimum power generation in space. Our unique expertise in germanium solar cells, which power current and future space missions, makes us an essential/a reliable partner to the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Germanium emerges as key material choice with Umicore at the forefront of supply

The space industry is poised for a significant expansion into immediate Earth observation, internet communication, and deep space exploration. Space missions that require high efficiency and lightweight power sources, rely on multijunction germanium solar cells because they are lighter, less voluminous, more efficient, more durable and resistant to cosmic radiation.

Multijunction germanium solar cells are typically used in satellites and spacecrafts that operate in geostationary orbits, low Earth orbits, and deep space missions beyond Earth's orbit. The International Space Station (ISS) itself is powered by huge multijunction solar cell arrays. With more than 30 years of experience in the supply of dislocation-free germanium substrates for multijunction solar cells, Umicore is a key player.

The key to sustainable space travel

Every kilogram you need to shoot up into space, needs optimum power and comes at a high cost. This is where germanium solar cells demonstrate their advantages.

“We are living in a second space age, witnessing a new era of space exploration and innovation. By the end of the decennium, there will be more than 100 people permanently in space stations. By supplying the germanium substrates, we are proud to be an important part of these remarkable expeditions.”

Pieter Arickx, Global Commercial Director, Germanium Solutions, Umicore Electro-Optic Materials.

Unlike some of the other solar cell materials, germanium can be recycled and reused. The majority of the germanium we use is recycled, which has 95%-smaller carbon footprint than germanium from primary sources. This allows germanium solar cells to be a sustainable solution, and at the same time offer best lifetime performance for a given weight and size ratio.

Thin germanium film technology : Innovation at Umicore meets the demands of space exploration

In the future, permanent bases on the Moon and Mars will be possible. There will also be more international, as well as commercial space stations. To power these and other missions, more sustainable, efficient, and compact solar cells are needed. Based on our advanced research and development, we are proud to be at the forefront of creating ultrathin (1-5 micron-thick layer) films of germanium to make them flexible and rollable, making them the material of choice for space applications. 

We are determined to further develop  thin germanium film technology. This innovation will require less material thus more resource efficient and will allow for high volume manufacturing, making it a valuable, cost-effective and more sustainable solution for space exploration.