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Startup Wants To Use Mercury In New Propulsion Systems

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A photo from the R&D of Apollo Fusion. The company has reportedly been developing new propulsion systems that will use mercury. While NASA has experimented with mercury in the past, there have been concerns over exposing people to the toxic chemical.  ( Apollo Fusion )

A Silicon Valley startup wants to use mercury to launch satellites into orbit, potentially lacing the atmosphere with toxic substance.

Industry insiders revealed that Apollo Fusion, a two-year-old company based in Mountain View, California, is designing propulsion systems that use mercury as spacecraft fuel. The company, which earlier this year has raised $10 million in venture funding, has already reportedly locked in one client and talking to two others.

Dangers Of Mercury

The use of mercury as spacecraft fuel is not a groundbreaking idea. In fact, NASA experimented with mercury back in the '60s during the Space Electric Propulsion Test (SERT) program.

There are benefits to using mercury as spacecraft fuel. It is heavier than both xenon or krypton, two substances currently being used to power ion engines. A spacecraft using mercury, therefore, would be able to generate more thrust.

However, there is a very serious reason why NASA immediately moved away from using mercury back in the '70s. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can impair a person's cognitive functions. Exposure to the chemical would lead to lower IQ, motor dysfunction, tremors, neuromuscular effects, and memory loss.

The World Health Organization classifies mercury as one of the top 10 chemicals or groups of chemicals that are major public health concerns.

After the launch of SERT 2 in 1970, NASA stopped using mercury as spacecraft fuel due to concerns that people on the ground are being exposed to the chemical.

Moreover, the United States has been making effort to reduce mercury emission across the country. The United States is also one of the 128 countries to sign the Minamata Convention, a treaty that aims to reduce mercury emissions around the world.

Apollo Fusion Responds To Toxic Mercury Propulsion Tech

The shocking report by Ben Elgin for Bloomberg Businessweek quoted anonymous industry insiders who refused to be named because they signed a non-disclosure agreement. They revealed that Apollo Fusion has pitched the technology, including the toxic element, to potential customers as recently as this summer.

However, the startup has refused to name its clientele and neither confirmed nor denied the report. In a statement, chief executive officer and co-founder Michael Cassidy said that the company is still evaluating a number of other technologies.

"We don't comment on our proprietary technology due to competitive risks, either on innovations that we've built or things that we're testing," he said through an e-mail to Bloomberg. "We are also committed to maintaining a low impact on the environment."

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