Bright future for solar power in space

May 30, 2012

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 solar panels to collect the and allow it to be transferred back to earth through microwaves 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 disaster areas 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 weather conditions.

“In areas like the Sahara desert 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 storing energy coming from renewable sources 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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User comments : 19

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CapitalismPrevails
1.8 / 5 (20) May 30, 2012
At $1000 a pound of cargo for SpaceX Dragon cargo lunches, I'm not so confident this will work.
The Singularity
1.9 / 5 (13) May 30, 2012
tbf they dont mention how they plan to get it up there. Assuming things is an inaccurate science to say the least.
perrycomo
1.7 / 5 (17) May 30, 2012
Yeah yeah thousands of beams which are going to deliver solar energy for all kind of villages and cities . Interesting for birds and planes . Complete crackpots in my opinion . Don't we have deserts with plenty of sunshine energy on earth ? Why don't they use their intellectual energy for the development of cheap efficient solar cells for use on earth ? Again a complete waist if money !!!
gwrede
1 / 5 (9) May 30, 2012
For civilian use, this is absolutely insane. At the cost of supplying a town from space, one could build all kinds of reliable energy solution combinations that would suffice, several times over.

For military use, however, this is an excellent choice. Just a few satellites could supply overseas deployed army and marine troops with enough power to use advanced and powerful radio jamming, and laser and rail guns. And "unlimited fuel" "for free" for their vehicles!

Strap a microwave antenna on top of your Hummer, and get the kind of mileage a nuclear submarine has! Perfectly doable with energy-satellites with multiplexing downlink antennas. And as an added bonus, a hijacked vehicle is useless, it isn't supplied the power.

Seems these Glasgow University nerds have no idea.
zsingerb
1 / 5 (7) May 30, 2012
How many times do people have to be told that the atmosphere attenuates microwaves. Transmit a thousand watts from space and you'll get milliwatts on the earth. Transmit a hundred thousand watts, get a watt. What are you going to do with 1 watt of microwave energy? Nothing.
TimUK
1 / 5 (4) May 30, 2012
Hmm. microwaves may cook the earthlings, lasers, vaporise us. I suppose they'll just have to use a bloomin' long jack-and-the-beanstalk wire to connect the planet to a satellite generator in geostationary orbit. What could possibly go wrong?
ryggesogn2
1.4 / 5 (11) May 30, 2012
Solar panels in any desert only produce electricity half the time.
A SPS creates electricity 24/7/365.
BTW, are there not microwave atm 'windows' just as there are optical 'windows'?
After all if the atm did not easily transmit some radio waves there could be no radio telescopes on earth.
Jeddy_Mctedder
1.5 / 5 (12) May 30, 2012
transmitting large amounts of power by harvesting it in space is an AMAZING AND NECESSARY IDEA.

ONLY ONE CATCH----the real goal is not to transmit the power through the atmosphere to consumers. its too use this power to focus energy beams IN OUTERSPACE----AS A WEAPON, AS A DEFENSE SHIELD AGAINST SPACE GARBAGE, AND ULTIMATELY AS A TOOL TO REMOTELY POWER SPACE SHIPS, COLONIES ON THE MOON, AND ASTEROID MINING OPERATIONS.

CapitalismPrevails
1.4 / 5 (11) May 30, 2012
Here's another thing. Wouldn't these solar arrays have to be in geosynchronous orbit and not low earth orbit? Needless to say, that would add more cost because GEO is 22,500 miles up.
Neurons_At_Work
4.1 / 5 (9) May 30, 2012
Guys--I truly mean no offense but could you please do at least a little research before making the more outlandish claims? Although I agree that cost of transport to space would be a major limiting factor, the efficiencies and safety aspects have been pretty well studied. Using a 100GHz beam from a 30 meter transmission antenna, the beam would spread out to be collected by a roughly 3.6 KM 'rectenna' on the ground with a center of beam power of 250 watts/m2--well within the limits of safety to humans/birds. The beam would be cut off should it stray. Beam aiming is done with a phased array antenna. The atmosphere is nearly transparent at that freq., although clouds will have some effect. The overall calculated efficiency from panel to power grid is roughly 50%. Not great, but about 4X ground-based averaged over a year. As I said, launch costs are the problem. Best case estimates show a fully operational system at $60 to $400 per watt installation cost. Vs. ~$5 on the ground? Yikes...
Judgeking
5 / 5 (1) May 31, 2012
Neurons, I agree. Somehow, the whiners on here really believe the scientists involved haven't thought this through. Guys, I'm sure they're very aware of the costs of space launch, satellite orbits and atmospheric issues. Relax. This is their job. They probably started analyzing these issues on day 1.
kaasinees
1.4 / 5 (9) May 31, 2012
Atmosphere is one thing and what about the ozone layer? More background radiation means higher risk of cancer doesnt matter how small it is, many of these risks from our society add up.
And at what accuracy will the frequency be? I doubt they can keep the frequency within safety lines all the time. Then there are high risks of using it as a weapon, doesnt matter how small the extra radiation is especially if we have multiple ones in orbit.
And if you did not know all the fuss about Korean satellites being hacked and used by parties other than gov.
ryggesogn2
1.3 / 5 (12) May 31, 2012
Neurons, I agree. Somehow, the whiners on here really believe the scientists involved haven't thought this through. Guys, I'm sure they're very aware of the costs of space launch, satellite orbits and atmospheric issues. Relax. This is their job. They probably started analyzing these issues on day 1.

I do believe a company was formed to develop the SPS. Imagine, non-govt money being invested! Must be something to it.
Asteroid Miner
1 / 5 (1) Jun 01, 2012
This was proposed by Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill way back in the 70's. Google L-5 Society.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Jun 01, 2012
Solar panels in any desert only produce electricity half the time.
A SPS creates electricity 24/7/365.

True, but for the same cost you can build 100 times as much solar arrays in a desert as getting stuff into orbit. Burning the rocket fuel for getting one pound of stuff to orbit in a powerplant directly would probably get you more power than what the same pound of solar cells in space would deliver over its lifetime.

Oh, and one good solar storm and it's 'bye bye global energy source' (whereas earthbound desasters like massive storms or earthquakes only cause local damage and can knock out only a fraction of powerplants at any one time)
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (9) Jun 01, 2012
What is the cost of distributing power to places that do not have access to solar power 24/7?
You need batteries to store the power, transmission lines, etc.
With a SPS, power could be beamed to the top of Mt. Everest as easily as Tahiti, 24/7/365.
Egleton
1 / 5 (6) Jun 03, 2012
Before anyone comments please go read the literature.
Dr Gerard K O'Neil et al presented the business plan back in the 70's. You Americans preferred to spend the money beating up some rice farmers in Vietnam.
My, how things have changed.
Now you beat up the Arabs.
You have lost every war so far. So for Christ's sake just stop it.
Get out into space and do what you are good at and stop pretending to be Warriors. Grow Up.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Jun 04, 2012
Just to put this into perspective. To get 9 tons into geosynchronous orbit costs about 150-220 million dollars using the Ariane 5
(And no The thingy that launchedthe dragon capsule is in no way capable of getting anything to GEO. That's strictly LEO which are VERY different critters: 400km vs. 36000km height )
(and not all of those 9 tons will be mirror/solar panels. Some of that will be fuel, because even Ariane doesn't deliver straight to GEO but to GTO).

For comparison: The entire Andasol Powerplant cost 300million dollars (let's say about two Ariane launches).

Now even given 24/7 sunshine in space you cannot even hope to match a tiny fraction of Andasol's output with less than 18 tons of material. If you think you can you've got to be out of your mind.
Husky
not rated yet Jun 04, 2012
yup a rather expensive pie in the sky, i rather have they "revolutionize solar power on earth" and finally manage to produce cells that are both high efficient and competetive in price.

The article mentions that there are some places on earth with adequate sunshine, but there is an issue with traporting the electricity thousands of miles to where its actually needed, crazy thought would it be possible to just have concentrating mirrors there and pump the concentrated light through wrist thick optical cable using internal reflection to minimize losses?

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