Doorstop - Gold Coast

Aussie-made rocket fuel

Karen Andrews: Well, it's an absolute pleasure to be here today. The Morrison Government is fuelling job creation. We are supporting Australia's space sector to absolutely take off. So right here today, we have the first commercial rocket that was launched using Australian-made solid-state rocket fuel. So this is a first for us here in Australia, and quite frankly, it demonstrates how significant the space sector is and will continue to be for us here in Australia. Now, solid-state rocket fuel is made in other parts of the world but it is really in quite limited number of nations, primarily India and China and North America. So what we have done here is potentially open up markets for Australian-made solid-state rocket fuel. This gives us a very strong entry point for us to be looking at how we build further capability here for launch. And of course, earlier this week, the new head of the Australian Space Agency, Enrico Palermo, started. He has been specifically tasked with growing Australia's launch capability and capacity. So, right here on the Gold Coast in South East Queensland, we have yet another example of a space industry player who has made significant advances with manufacturing the solid-state rocket fuel and, of course, with their first successful launch using that rocket fuel. Now, this project has been able to be realised because of the support that has been provided by the Federal Government, specifically through the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, who have contributed about $184,000 to this particular project.

Now, I have here with me today the head of Black Sky, Blake Nikolic, so I'll invite him to come over and say a few words specifically about the work that has been done on developing this fuel source here in Australia and particularly the rocket launch. So, Blake.

Blake Nikolic: So we've been working on rockets for a number of years. Black Sky has been around for about two and a half years, but before that, there's been a lot of development through the improvements of the rockets, the vehicles themselves. It's been quite important to actually manufacture the fuel locally because it's a big burden requiring to import that all of the time. Now that we've been able to manufacture the fuel locally, it's going to up opportunity- open up opportunities, as the Minister said, for export and obviously the domestic market. With a growing space industry, it's vital that we have those capabilities made right here in Australia, and this particular rocket fuel is going to drive a lot of that technology. There are variants of rocket fuels that are used, but this one in particular, it's easy to relate to the shuttle, which had these solid rocket boosters, the white tanks on the outside. This is the same type of fuel that is used, but this one in particular, we will use on sounding rockets to help the industry grow and raise their technology readiness level, which is a very important part to support the NASA programs, the Moon to Mars programs, and the Australian space industry in general. So, we're very excited to have this technology now on board. The support from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre has made this come to fruition and it has driven our goals and our timeframes quite rapidly. So it's very exciting.

Question: Can we just get the spelling of your first and last name?

Blake Nikolic: Yeah, so Blake Nikolic. B-L-A-K-E-N-I-K-O-L-I-C.

Karen Andrews: Thank you very much, Blake. I’ll now invite Paul Cooper, who is the chair of the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, to speak about their involvement in this particular project. And of course, the Australian Government established industry growth centres a number of years ago; now with Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre is one of those specifically designed to take part in projects like this, but in the case of the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre to work with our manufacturers, to work with our key industry players here, to grow advanced manufacturing right here in Australia. So I'll invite Paul Cooper to say a few words.

Paul Cooper: Thanks, Minister. And congratulations to Black Sky Aerospace and Blake and his team. The Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre has been an initiative of the Morrison Government and led by Minister Andrews to provide through the six growth centres to provide capabilities for Australia. At the outcome of this, we're looking to try and take Australian businesses and bring them through in the manufacturing centres to become internationally competitive. We do that by finding businesses that can compete on value, not cost. What we're seeing here is a business in the rocket industry, the space industry, that has successfully and safely fired and launched the rockets that we're seeing behind us here today and the ones that have been test fired in various parts around Australia.

So the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre looks at trying to build sovereign capability, and what we found is that Australian manufacturers have always had strong sovereign capability. What has happened in the last 12 months, in the difficult year that we've had through the Morrison Government and through Minister Andrews, is take that sovereign capability and build sovereign capacity. You know, these guys, Black Sky Aerospace, have always had the capability of building, launching and safely launching rockets. What we've done is brought that in and give them the capacity to Australia and the capability to Australia to allow that to be advanced here and to also take it into the international markets. So well done to Blake and the team, and let's see where it can go from here. The sky is not the limit.

Karen Andrews: So we're happy to take questions. So, any questions for Paul or for Blake?

Question: Can I just ask a question first, Minister, what's the Morrison Government’s ultimate goal in the domestic space industry?

Karen Andrews: So we have a unique capability with the space sector in Australia. Space has been identified as one of our six national manufacturing priorities. We believe that we have the capability to develop space manufacturing here. We're hearing today about our capability to manufacture solid-state rocket fuel, but there's also work that we are doing with satellites, particularly the nano-satellites from a manufacturing point of view. And then, of course, more broadly, we will look at launch capability here in Australia for rockets. We will look at what the options are for us to maximise opportunities with, for example, GPS. And I think that many Australians would be aware of the impact of space on their daily lives, even if they don't realise that it is a space outcome.

So every time that you jump onto to maps and you use the information there to guide you, that’s because of the information that is coming to us from space. There are enormous opportunities for us to build that sector. And of course, we are in the southern hemisphere and we have a huge opportunity to see the sky from a different perspective, from the northern hemisphere. We have quite distinct launch capability here. And finally, the Morrison Government has made it very clear that we will grow the space sector here in Australia to triple its size by 2030.

Question: How much money does the Government intend to pump in?

Karen Andrews: Well, I’m happy to answer the question specifically about money, and there has been well over $300 million that has been put into the space industry here in Australia. But what the Morrison Government is doing, particularly with manufacturing and with all industries, is supporting those businesses that are prepared to support themselves and back themselves. Now, we do have a very strong manufacturing sector here in Australia. We make things, we make things well, we will continue to make things here. Space is a new opportunity for us, and we are, as a government, absolutely embracing that and we will continue to work with that sector.

Question: Are you playing catch up I mean the US and Russia and China they’ve been launching rockets for years?

Karen Andrews: Well, we’ve had a lot of input into the space sector here in Australia. And there would be many Australians that would be very much aware of the role that we have played in various- or a number of the moon missions that NASA has undertaken with tracking and beaming the first images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. So we actually do have a lot of history in space. There have been launches that have taken place from Woomera, starting from a number of years ago. So we have had that capability. What’s important for us to understand is, that the Australian Space Agency is very different to NASA. The Australian Space Agency has been specifically established to work with industry to grow the space industry here in Australia, focusing on what our strengths are. Now we have previously committed $150 million so that our businesses here in Australia, specifically our small businesses, can be part of the NASA Artemis programme, which is the moon charts programme. That work is underway, but it’s not money for NASA, it’s money for Australian businesses so that their technology, their equipment, can be part of that programme.

Question: Why is the Gold Coast a great location for growing this area?

Karen Andrews: Because we have so many plusses here on the Gold Coast. Black Sky is actually based towards the Hinterland, well Jimboomba. And they do a lot of work from there. So we have a terrific location, but we also have universities here on the Gold Coast. South East Queensland does have a lot of capacity to develop this industry. So I think that we need to embrace that. But of course, you know, Gold Coast is one part of it, Queensland is a part of it, Australia is a part of the space industry. So, we need to capitalise on all of those opportunities.

Any Questions for Blake or Paul?

Question: Just the phrase you mentioned there, tech readiness level. Can you explain what that means?

Blake Nikolic: So NASA have defined something called the TRL, or technology readiness level. And it’s rated between one to nine. And basically looks at where technology is in its life cycle, whether it’s a concept on paper, there are prototypes made, or it is actually developed to launch and there is a commercialisation. So our fuel now, is reaching up around the TRL eight and nine, where we are launching it commercially. And that means that we can sell this produce as a launch service, or as a fuel itself. And we will use that to drive launches to help other companies raise their TRL. So typically around the three or four, where they are more than a concept on paper, they are developing technology, but now they need to find an ability to get some flight heritage, and space qualification. So doing- launching with us, allows them to raise their TRL, and increase certainty for the likes of NASA to ensure that their products are space ready.

Question: Have you got clients or customers lined up for this fuel?

Blake Nikolic: Yes, so we have been working with a number of customers through launches previously. Now they’re very excited that we have this capability that we’re manufacturing locally. So it’s a complete end-to-end sovereign solution, or Australian-made solution. And the customers are lining up to get on board with launches, and they’re also looking at how we can enhance other technology. So other companies that may launch rockets that require a boost through the lower atmosphere, which many rocket companies around the world do, we now have that ability to provide that for them. So there are a lot of customers that are excited about this opportunity.

Question: Mostly domestic, do you think? Or international clients?

Blake Nikolic: We have both international and domestic clients. Obviously a core focus right now is domestic, to ensure that the Australian space industry is looked after, but there is export opportunities. So a number of rules and regulations that foreigners- that the US mainly will impinge on people, so they’ll have these regulations to make it very difficult to export and import fuels. With Australia now being able to supply this, we will work with our allies in other countries to ensure that they will also have access to the fuels as we export.

Question: How much money is in this for you as a business? Are you talking about a potential market here of millions, tens of millions …?

Blake Nikolic: So, there’s a couple of different elements in the funding for us. The international- the space industry at the moment is worth about US$400 billion annually. And then there’s a defence market as well, which is well into the trillions. We’re looking at supplying both the civilian and the defence sides of markets, which will be well into the hundreds of millions, potentially more.

Question: This is going to sound really stupid, but forgive me. The 7-Eleven up the road sells E10 for about $1.45 a litre. How much does this fuel cost?

Blake Nikolic: That’s a great question. It’s not really comparable.


Blake Nikolic: I hear the EV guys are buying fuel for free. The rocket fuel varies in price depending. There’s variations of formulas. The easiest way to explain this sort of rocket fuel, is it’s like baking a cake. You get your egg, your flour, your milk, your water, your sugar. You mix that together, and you end up with a sludge that is then set to cure, and that’s how the rocket fuel comes out. Now within those materials, you can obviously put in exotic materials, or different chemicals that are more expensive, so you can dictate a lot of the pricing. So there is a big variable question on pricing.

Question: Thanks for being gentle with me.

Paul Cooper: I just add I don’t think that at any media event we’ve ever had we’ve had a question about TRL levels, so I think that’s fantastic. I think the way industry growth centres work, is that we’ve- we look at across the TRL spectrum. And the Minister in our early phases advanced us some money for early stage. So low TRL. So, we often don’t talk about this because it gets lost in the media attention, but low TRLs is universally the bench tested developing prototypes. And there was money available for that low TRL level, to bring it up to say, this is a product that can become commercially viable. And then, the bulk of our funding has been on TRLs from four through to about six, to take those businesses through to become internationally competitive. So, it summarises really nicely in- when you think about it, in the TRL level. If you look at Black Sky Aerospace, the organisation itself is now at the TRL, you know, eight, nine area, where it’s looking at international competitiveness. And that’s where we’re trying to take businesses. And when we first started working with Black Sky Aerospace, they had capabilities that were probably at that TRL eight, but on the solid rocket fuel you might say it was TRL four. And we’ve been able to assist them, through the Government, to bring it up to where it is now. So it’s a great question to give that context.

Question: And just before you mentioned capability versus capacity. Could you elaborate a little bit more on that?

Paul Cooper: So the capability is developed through- what we have in Australia is a fantastic tertiary education sector that builds that capability through the engineering, the sciences, the technology areas, to build the capability of our workforce in Australia. And that feeds into a lot of businesses in the industry in Australia. What has happened globally, is that sometimes those businesses have been built to a certain level, and then go overseas. Now what’s happened, particularly during COVID, with the invasive ventilators, with masks, and all of that sort of thing, the capability was always there, what happened is we brought it, and reshored the capacity back to Australia. Now we didn’t have to bring capability from overseas, that was always here. We brought capacity back into Australia.

Question: Sort of like a brain drain?

Paul Cooper: Yeah. We’ve reversed the brain drain.

Question: How do you do that?

Paul Cooper: Well, we do it by making exciting projects. And Black Sky Aerospace, you know, people at UQ and Bond University are the ones who are graduating from universities around Australia. They’re coming out with these skills, they don’t have to look out internationally now for career paths. They can look at the work and say; we can go to Black Sky Aerospace in Jimboomba, you know? Black Sky Aerospace, to take the capability and build that right along through to being world leaders. So that’s what we’re seeing. Reverse their brain drain. Onshore the work here, where possible. Where we can add value, not on cost. Compete on value.