The Space-based Solar Power Project unleashes technology “capable of collecting solar power in space and beaming it to Earth.” Like something from a science fiction novel, downloading power from space is about to become a reality. Clean and affordable energy can be supplied anywhere on the planet.
Beaming down affordable energy
Technology capable of beaming electricity from orbit to ground based receivers is about to enter the test phase. The objective is providing Earth with “a global supply of clean and affordable energy.” Once considered speculative science fiction, plans are on the drawing board to exploit advances in technology.
A team of researchers at the California Institute of Technology are about to “deploy a constellation of modular spacecraft that collect sunlight, transform it into electricity, then wirelessly transmit that electricity wherever it is needed.”
That’s great news for folks with no access to reliable power now because beaming energy systems can hit virtually any target on the planet’s surface. “This is an extraordinary and unprecedented project,” chief researcher on the project Harry Atwater, declares.
“It exemplifies the boldness and ambition needed to address one of the most significant challenges of our time, providing clean and affordable energy to the world.”
Professor Atwater has a whole string of credentials after his name. He serves as Otis Booth Leadership Chair of Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science and also the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science.
Beaming energy is right up his alley so he’s leading the project jointly “with two other researchers: Ali Hajimiri, Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering and co-director of SSPP; and Sergio Pellegrino, Joyce and Kent Kresa Professor of Aerospace and Civil Engineering, co-director of SSPP, and a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
Three breakthrough areas
In order to collect solar power in orbit and send it beaming back down to where its needed on Earth requires breakthrough advances in three main technological areas. First, Atwater’s group “is designing ultralight high-efficiency photovoltaics that are optimized for space conditions.”
Those are the parts which convert light into electricity. They need to be “compatible with an integrated modular power conversion and transmission system.”
Meanwhile Hajimiri’s research team is hard at work “developing the low-cost and lightweight technology needed to convert direct current power to radio frequency power” The same frequencies used to transmit phone calls can be used for beaming it to Earth as microwaves.
There is no harm to plane passengers or anyone traveling through the energy transfer beams. “The process is safe,” Hajimiri explains because “non-ionizing radiation at the surface is significantly less harmful than standing in the sun. In addition, the system could be quickly shut down in the event of damage or malfunction.”
The third team, headed by Pellegrino, is “inventing foldable, ultrathin, and ultralight space structures to support the photovoltaics as well as the components needed to convert, transmit, and steer radio frequency power to where it is needed.” The basic gizmo for beaming energy around utilizes “a 4-inch-by-4-inch tile that weighs less than a tenth of an ounce.”
By rigging up hundreds of thousands “into a system of flying carpet-like satellites,” they can “create a sunlight-gathering surface that measures 3.5 square miles.” Because it’s never been done, they aren’t sure how much power will be produced. They have $100 million in funding and expect to test launch their prototypes in December of 2022.