New Zealand wool may be about to go where no human has gone before: deep space.
Nasa is currently evaluating a Kiwi-made, wool-based filter system to protect astronauts in its Orion spacecraft, being designed to explore the moon, Mars and asteroids.
Designed by Auckland-based wool innovators Lanaco, the HelixTM filter was sourced from purpose-bred sheep and was now being tested for use in the craft's emergency life-support system, which would be activated in the event of a fire.
The Helix filter could be used as a pre-filter layer for emergency personal equipment and cabin air systems, preventing clogging in other filter layers by removing thick contaminants like molten plastic.
Shaun Tan, Lanaco's head of technology, recently returned from the Johnson Space Centre in Houston and said he was confident that the Helix filter could meet Nasa's requirements.
"In the case of the Orion life-support system, the Helix filter is being tested for particle loading capacity, breathability, flame resistance and the ability to function even if exposed to Orion's water-based fire extinguisher systems," Tan said.
"The Helix filter is currently used in protective equipment in high contaminant situations like construction and mining, but firefighting in space represents a new challenge for our R&D team."
Lanaco's wool-filter technology made headlines last year, following the launch of anti-pollution face masks now used in several major cities in Asia and India.
The company's founder and chief executive, Nick Davenport, described wool as an "outstanding fibre" for practical applications.
"Its electrostatic properties catch small harmful particles, its protein structure captures gases and harmful toxins and yet the fibre is bacteria and flame resistant," he said.
"We believe in wool as a sustainable, innovative solution to combat air-pollution."
Davenport's previous start-up, Nexus Foams, supplied manufacturers with polymer based material components used in everything from civil construction to electronic and medical devices.
After commercialising materials as parts for devices like sleep apnea machines and refrigerators, he saw an opportunity to develop new high-functioning, locally-sourced products.
"It only took a small amount of digging into the functional attributes of a wool fibre to confirm that indeed, if wool could be made into functional materials, such as filters, then several other attributes of the fibre would be appealing and valuable to consumers."
The space capsule project arose four months ago when Boston-based technology scouting company yet2 was asked by Nasa to seek better solutions for the protection of astronauts in the next generation of spacecraft – the Orion programme.
Orion was the first programme to take man in to deep space - the moon and beyond - since the Apollo programme of the 1970s.
"The problems in space for respiratory protection are significantly more complex than here on Earth," he said.
"For example, an onboard fire will cause a large concentration of highly toxic particles to be emitted, filling the cabin and endangering the lives of the astronauts until they are removed."
These particles are not only nasty, but also hot and sticky, and had to be able to be captured without clogging a filter in a harsh and humid environment.
"This is where our technology shows its special and unique merits."
Should Helix be selected for the Orion programme's first manned launch in 2023.
Davenport said the technology could well be rolled out elsewhere in similar applications.
"Not only the protection of everyday people in urban environments where air quality is poor, but also for those in critical breathing areas such as those affected by respiratory medical conditions, emergency first responders, military, medical devices, household appliances and other vehicles less expensive as space craft, such as cars, public transport… or even baby strollers."