Engineers aim to boost the future of renewable energy by collecting solar power in space

May 16, 2012
The image shows Ph.D. student Thomas Sinn (left) and Dr. Massimiliano Vasile with a test satellite. Credit: Graeme Fleming, University of Strathclyde

Solar power gathered in space could be set to provide the renewable energy of the future thanks to innovative research being carried out by engineers at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

Researchers at the University have already tested equipment in space that would provide a platform for to collect the and allow it to be transferred back to earth through or lasers.

This unique development would provide a reliable source of power and could allow valuable energy to be sent to remote areas in the world, providing power to or outlying areas that are difficult to reach by traditional means.

Dr Massimiliano Vasile, of the University of Strathclyde's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is leading the space based solar power research, said: "Space provides a fantastic source for collecting solar power and we have the advantage of being able to gather it regardless of the time of the day or indeed the .

"In areas like the where quality solar power can be captured, it becomes very difficult to transport this energy to areas where it can be used. However, our research is focusing on how we can remove this obstacle and use space based solar power to target difficult to reach areas.

"By using either microwaves or lasers we would be able to beam the energy back down to earth, directly to specific areas. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy and would remove the need for coming from on ground as it would provide a constant delivery of solar energy.

"Initially, smaller satellites will be able to generate enough energy for a small village but we have the aim, and indeed the technology available, to one day put a large enough structure in space that could gather energy that would be capable of powering a large city."

Last month, a team of science and engineering students at Strathclyde developed an innovative 'space web' experiment which was carried on a rocket from the Arctic Circle to the edge of space.

The experiment, known as Suaineadh – or 'twisting' in Scots Gaelic, was an important step forward in space construction design and demonstrated that larger structures could be built on top of a light-weight spinning web, paving the way for the next stage in the solar power project.

Dr Vasile added: "The success of Suaineadh allows us to move forward with the next stage of our project which involves looking at the reflectors needed to collect the solar power.

"The current project, called SAM (Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane) will test the deployment of an ultra light cellular structure that can change shape once deployed. The structure is made of cells that are self-inflating in vacuum and can change their volume independently through nanopumps.

"The structure replicates the natural cellular structure that exists in all living things. The independent control of the cells would allow us to morph the structure into a solar concentrator to collect the sunlight and project it on solar arrays. The same structure can be used to build large systems by assembling thousands of small individual units."

The project is part of a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) study led by Dr John Mankins of Artemis Innovation. The University of Strathclyde represents the European section of an international consortium involving American researchers, and a Japanese team, led by Professor Nobuyuki Kaya of the University of Kobe, a world leader in wireless power transmission.

The NIAC study is demonstrating a new conceptual design for large scale satellites. The role of the team at the University of Strathclyde is to develop innovative solutions for the structural elements and new solutions for orbit and orbit control.

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9 comments

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Vendicar_Decarian
3.3 / 5 (7) May 16, 2012
Fiddling while Rome burns.
retrosurf
3.4 / 5 (5) May 16, 2012
One number I'd like to see is the time to break even on EROEI (Energy Return Over Energy Investment). Lifting something to orbit takes a lot of energy. 15 kilowatt hours per kilogram is the potential energy at geosynchronous orbit, at 100% efficiency.

The energy required to lift the generation facility (50-70% Carnot efficiency) and the efficiency of the beam (.5 to 2 percent), and the efficiency of the cell (let's say 50%) all need to be taken into account, but I've got to go :-)
javjav
not rated yet May 16, 2012
Why using it in earth orbit? couldn't it be more efficient to send small solar panels to a direct orbit around the sun, but at one third of the distance or less? lasers and microwawes beams remain much more focused than sun light, the panels could be much smaller for an equivalent power, and several of them could make a ring around the sun and transmit power between them aggregating their own power, up to the panel that is nearest to us at any moment, which would route the beam to earth direction. Also each panel could have a small ion engine for travelling to their optimal location (the solar panel that needed by this engine is already there for free). I think a collection of these devices could be much smaller in total and more feasible than sending a giant panel to earth orbit.
Terriva
1 / 5 (4) May 16, 2012
A straightforward way, how to make even more space junk and to avoid cold fusion research...
kaasinees
2.6 / 5 (5) May 16, 2012
Inbred retards.
djr
3.4 / 5 (5) May 16, 2012
"Inbred retards." Are you referring to the commenters - who have nothing constructive to add to the conversation, or the evolution of science - but insist on spamming every physorg article with very negative comments?
MarkyMark
1 / 5 (3) May 17, 2012
Inbred retards.

Gave you a 1 for lack of info! Who is inbred?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) May 17, 2012
lasers and microwawes beams remain much more focused than sun light

Not at thosew distances. Beams DO have a spread.

Stuff that is closer to the sun also has a different orbital period than Earth (except at the Lagrange point L1...but that is only 5 times the distance to the Moon, and so not really worth the added hassle for the 2 percent more power or so)

retrosurf got it right. Space based solar has a lot of advantages. But a return on energy invested to get the stuff up there is not one of them. Also note that the amount of rocket launches to get adequate stuff up there would be enormous. Rocket launches are extremely toxic (and killer for the ozone layer) with today's fuels. Only reason this doesn't matter currently is because there are so few of them.

Better to burn the fuel down here in powerplants directly. Would be WAY more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Judgeking
not rated yet May 18, 2012
anitalias, quality lasers would not have much spread if the satellites were only a few hundred miles up, a few meters at most. No reason to put them in geosync, at 200mi up the IIS orbits the earth every 90min. Then just launch a few satellites and have several receiving stations around the earth. If the cable companies can do it...

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