Solar Power Stations in Space Could Supply the World with Limitless Energy

While on the surface of the Earth, society still struggles to adopt solar energy solutions,many scientistsmaintain that giant, space-based solarfarms could providean environmentally-friendly answer to the world's energy crisis.

Only last week, we reported that China was planning to build the world's first solar power station to be positioned in Earth's orbit. Because the sunalways shines in space,an orbitalsolar power station is seen as aninexhaustible source of clean energy.

"Above the Earth, there'sno day and night cycle and no clouds or weather or anything else that might obstruct the sun's ray, so a constant power source is available,"said Ali Hajimiri, professor of electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and co-director of the university's Space Solar Power Project Collecting solar power in space and wirelessly transmittingwas first described by Isaac Asimov in 1941 in his short story Reason . In 1968, American aerospace engineer Peter Glaser published the first technical article on the concept- PowerFromThe Sun: Its Future in the journal Science Space-based solar power attractedconsiderable attention in the 1970s as the necessary individual technical components - in essence, photovoltaic cells, satellite technology and wireless power transmission - were developed. Despite the conceptbeing technically feasible, it was considered economically unrealistic at the time andresearch ultimatelystalled.

"The idea seems to be going through a resurgenceand it's probably because the technology exists to make it happen," said John Mankins, aformer NASA scientist whowas at the forefront of thisfield in the 1990s, before it was abandoned.

Global energy demands are only going to grow, saysHajimiri. The global population is expected to reach a staggering 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report , so methods of generating large quantities of clean energy must be found. A space-based solar power system could provide energy to everyone, even in places that don't receive sunlight all year round, like northern Europe and Russia.

In April of 2015, aresearch agreement between Northrop Grumman and Caltech provided up to $17.5m for the development of innovations necessary to enable a space solar power system. Three Caltech professorshead up the project:joiningHajimiri were Harry Atwater and Sergio Pellegrino.

Caltech is just one institution working on developing this technology.We know thatscientists at the Chongqing Collaborative Innovation Research Institute for Civil-Military Integration in Chinaare constructing a facility to test the theoretical viability ofthe concept andplans to develop an orbital photovoltaic array were announced in Japan some time ago.

One of the biggest issues to overcome is that of getting an array of solar panels large enough to make the project viable into orbit.Early concept designs in the 1970s featured giant arrays that would've proved very difficult to actually get into orbit.

"The systems of the 70s for solar power satellites, the cost estimates suggested, at that time, that it might be as much as a trillion dollars to get to the first kilowatt hour because of the way the designs worked. Essentially a single satellite, a platform, an integrated, monolithic platform about the size of Manhattan," said Mankins.

However, with SpaceX and Blue Origin slowly driving the cost of orbital delivery down, suddenly the concept seems a little closer to reality.

"Going to modular systems to allow mass production, I believe was the answer to how to get solar power satellite costs down to something more reasonable," said Mankins.

Details of China's proposed plans have not been made public, but mostconcept designs that exist today are based around an idea that thephotovoltaic array iscomposedof a lightweight, deployable structure made of many smaller"solar satellites" that couldeasilyconnect together in space to form much larger array and "harvest sunlight." Equally, this approach also makes assembly, maintenanceand repair considerably easier.

"I've seenapresentation on what they [China] are presumably doing. I can't guarantee that's actually it, but it was by them, about the space solar system. What I've seen appears to be a conventional approach, which is similar to what peopleare currently contemplating," saidHajimiri.

This completed array would orbit about 22,000 miles above the Earth and "beam" the energy back down to the surface. Thephotovoltaic array converts the sunlight into electricity, which in turn is converted into RF electrical power (microwaves) that are beamed wirelesslyto ground-based receivers.These would take the form of giant wire nets measuring up to four miles across that could be installedacross deserts or farmland or even over lakes.

A solar facility like this could generate aconstant flow of 2,000 gigawatts of power, Mankins estimates, compared to the largest solar farmthat exists today in Aswan,southern Egypt, that only generates in the region of 1.8 gigawatts.

An orbiting solar array, collecting and storing massive amounts of energy that's beamed to the surface... You'd be forgiven for thinking this could be the plot of a James Bond movie, if this array was somehow weaponized.

Thankfully, that's not how it works.

"The energy densities will not exceed what you normally would get. It would definitely not exceed what you get from the sun,"said Hajimiri.

The microwaves that transmit the energy to the surface would be at the so-called non-ionizing radiation frequency. "What that means is that the frequencies are such that unlike x-rays, these are the frequencies at which their photons don't have enough energy to induce chemical change, like that ultraviolet or x-rays do,"said Hajimiri.

"I've been working on wireless power transmitters that would operate in the microwave frequency range, between about 2 gigahertz and 8 gigahertz, roughly. Wavelengths on the order of 10 to 2 inches. Those wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation can pass through the Earth's atmosphere, including clouds and weather, without interruption, without interference." However,Mankinsexpects there might still be some problems. "There's always the geopolitics issue. Because when you're at an equatorial orbit, geostationary Earth orbit, you can see a great deal of the Earth below you. For me, it's challenging to envision how there would ever be agreement to allow such a thing." The team at Caltech have successfully tested their proof of concept on the ground, theirphotovoltaic prototypesdemonstrated they can collect and wirelessly transmit 10 gigahertz of power,sothe next step is to perform scaled down experiments in space.

The biggest challenge isto reducethe massas much as possible without sacrificing efficiency.Of course, thatwould also help reduce cost, which is probably still the biggest hurdle.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to test it in space within a couple of years,"said Hajimiri.

"Space solar power would transform our future in space andcould provide a new source of virtually limitless and sustainable energy to markets across the world," said Mankins. "Why wouldn't we pursue it?" John Mankins has written a book called The Case for Solar Power , which is available on Amazon

Solar Power Stations in Space Could Supply the World with Limitless Energy 1

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