Solar panels in space could be clean-energy gold mines

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Could space solar energy one day change the world?

Getty Images / Mmdi

Solar energy is a staple in humanity’s clean energy repertoire. We have spread masses of solar panels over solar fields, and many people power their homes by decorating their roofs with reflective rectangles.

But there is a caveat regarding this wonderful source of energy: Solar panels cannot collect energy at night. To function at their maximum efficiency, they need as much sunlight as possible. So, to maximize the performance of these solar collectors, the researchers plan to send them to a place where the sun never sets: outer space.

Theoretically, if a bunch of solar panels were put into orbit, they would absorb the sun even on the foggiest days and darkest nights, storing up an enormous amount of energy. If this energy were transmitted wirelessly to Earth, our planet could breathe clean, renewable energy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Who would be significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

Amid a worsening climate crisis, the success of solar space energy could be more important than ever. The state of the climate is in the spotlight right now as world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 summit, which has been called “the world’s best last chance” to bring the crisis under control.

CNET Science highlights some futuristic strategies designed to help countries reduce their carbon emissions. Next-generation technologies like solar space power alone may not solve our climate problems on their own, but green innovation could be invaluable to the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement: to limit climate change. global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

An unlimited supply of renewable energy from the sun could help us do just that.

From science fiction to reality

For decades, space solar power has lived on the minds of science fiction enthusiasts and scientists.

In the early 1900s, Russian mathematician-scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky regularly produced a flood of futuristic designs envisioning human technology beyond Earth. He’s responsible for evoking things like space elevators, steerable rockets and, you guessed it, space solar energy.

Since Bell Labs invented the first concrete “solar panel” in the 1950s, international scientists worked to make Tsiolkovsky’s sci-fi fantasy a reality. They understand Japanese researchers, the American army and a team from the California Institute of Technology spearhead of the Space Solar Power project.

“[Space solar power] was extensively studied in the late 1960s into the 1970s, sort of at the height of the Apollo program, ”said Michael Kelzenberg, principal investigator on the project.

Unfortunately, due to the weight and bulk of the materials, the technology at the time was not advanced enough to achieve the feat in a cost-effective manner. It would have been exceptionally difficult to send conventional solar panels into space via a rocket without breaking the bank.

“The unique and defining characteristic of the Caltech approach is its focus on reducing the mass of components by 10 to 100 times,” said Harry Atwater, principal investigator of the project. “This is essential for reducing both manufacturing and launch costs in order to make space solar energy economical.”

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A structural prototype of Caltech’s lighter solar panels.

Caltech / The solar space energy project

A sky full of solar panels

Instead of using a rocket to transport traditional solar panels into space, the Caltech team is advocating a new type of panel that is lighter, more compact and foldable. They suggest sending a large number of these mini tile-like aerial solar panels into orbit.

Each individual tile has everything it needs, such as photovoltaics, to harvest solar energy. When connected in space, the tiny squares essentially form a giant mine of renewable energy floating around the Earth.

While the team studied a range of composites to create the ideal ultralight structure, some are actually less efficient than terrestrial solar panels. But Kelzenberg notes that in space, “efficiency” gains new meaning.

“The increase in efficiency really comes from the fact that by placing them in space, they receive a lot of intense sunlight because the sunlight does not have to pass through the atmosphere,” he said. he declares. “They also get sunlight, basically 24 hours a day.”

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Every little solar panel is part of something much, much bigger.

Caltech / The solar space energy project

When the sun shines on these panels, they absorb direct current or direct current energy beams. In the team mechanism, this energy is translated into radio frequencies. The next step is to bring this power back to Earth.

This will happen, according to the team, through microwave radiation. The radiofrequency energy would be projected towards our planet on areas reminiscent of the solar fields of the desert. But instead of what solar panels usually are, these regions would contain receivers with antennas that collect the harvested energy.

It’s basically wireless energy transfer, something Nikola Tesla alluded to the end of the 19th century.

Using such radiation, Kelzenberg says, allows the system to operate in rain, fog, night and mild thunderstorms, only likely to be disturbed by the most severe weather conditions. However, a question often raised about wireless radiation patterns is whether it would negatively impact vegetation or other terrain features.

Atwater says that is not of concern.

“The power density received on Earth would be equivalent to the power density of sunlight on a sunny day,” he explained. “And space solar power systems can be designed to be inherently safe in this regard.”

As an added safety measure, Kelzenberg says familiar measures can be taken, such as cordoning off the reception area. Cell phone towers, which use a similar form of airwave communication, do the same.

Once the terrestrial receivers recover the energy in the form of radio frequencies, they work with a ground station to convert it back to DC energy, which is then transformed into alternating current, or alternating current, fed into the power grid, Atwater mentioned. .

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Wireless energy transfer will help us deliver clean energy 24/7.

Caltech / The solar space energy project

It’s a complex process, but that last element, alternating current, is ordinary old-fashioned electricity that flows through outlets in your home to charge your iPhone and bring your laptop to life. There.

Teleport Earth, Scotty

“Our first space flight to demonstrate solar energy space component technology is now scheduled for late 2022, on a commercial spacecraft,” Atwater said.

While the team won’t be launching the real deal, they will be conducting an experiment that demonstrates the feasibility of smaller-scale technologies. It will be a makeshift and simpler form of invention. They will even send out a number of solar cells that have never seen the void of space before.

But one day, if space solar energy becomes a reality, it could change the world.

Not only would this help power remote areas and balance the power grid to prevent blackouts, but it could also send power to mining operations on other planets.

“Space solar energy can be deployed in remote areas of the Earth where there is no existing power grid; it could also be used to generate base energy on the Moon or on Mars via a similar scheme of orbital energy production and radiation to the surface, ”Atwater explained.

More importantly, the energy that humans could generate through 24/7 solar power would be enough to meet the growing demands of our planet and even replace nuclear or coal power. “This represents a ‘basic’ source of energy that is always available, unlike solar panels on Earth,” Atwater said.

Kelzenberg added: “This is why we believe this can play an important role in moving towards a fully carbon neutral electricity grid in the future.”

Of course, there is a long way to go. Even if the team’s 2022 experiment is successful, there are manufacturing costs to consider, as well as legal questions about occupying orbital space (there may be government restrictions). Questions about the feasibility of replacing known power grids with space solar power plants will also remain.

But at the end of this path, we can find something golden.

“I think we can certainly agree that getting a cheap solar panel and putting it on the ground will cost a lot less than throwing one into space,” Kelzenberg said. “But the real virtue of space solar power is its ability to provide solar power day and night.”


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