As per Caltech researchers, unfiltered sunlight in space generates 8 times more power than Earth-based solar panels. The chance of harnessing abundant clean energy from space is becoming possible with successful demonstration by the research team at Caltech who managed to send power from a prototype in space to Earth. The high cost of building large infrastructure in space is still a challenge. Yet, experts believe that space-based solar power would be ready to supply power on Earth by 2050. This according to them is required to meet the emission targets set by the Paris Agreement.
It has been a decade old dream to beam electricity down to the Earth from solar panels in space. Space-based solar power is being perceived as the future of clean energy. Even though the research is still in its initial phases, there is more hype than ever those space-based solar power stations could actually work. A prototype launched into space successfully transmitted a small amount of power to Earth, researchers announced this month. This is an important first of its type nascent technology.
In outer space, solar panels are harnessing unfiltered solar energy without sunset. According to Caltech, this type of exposure enables them to generate around 8 times more power as generated by solar panels on Earth. A senior technology analyst at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Nikolai Joseph said in a statement, “I have a hard time not letting my imagination run wild when I start looking at this.” It has a strange seductiveness like that.”
We may be able to harness and transmit space-based solar power to Earth or potentially even outposts on the Moon, hopefully. How soon would it be possible depends on the study Nikolai Joseph is working on with NASA colleagues. Demonstration by Caltech was a game-changer according to him, and he added, “If you’d asked me if that was going to happen a year ago, I would have said, ‘Oh no, probably not.’ And then they just did it, which is wild.”
Caltech has successfully tackled one of the most technical obstacles in space solar power: transmitting electricity from space to Earth securely. In January, a spacecraft, carrying Caltech’s prototype, was launched into space by a SpaceX rocket. The prototype has solar cells and transmitters to send energy to various places. Solar cells turn sunlight into electricity that is converted to microwaves to be sent wirelessly. Here’s an official video to better understand the process.
Caltech’s prototype managed to successfully transmit power wirelessly from space and received it back at the university, just a few months after its initial launch. At the beginning, the transmitter emitted microwaves that were received by nearby arrays of receptors, located approximately one foot apart. The arrays transformed microwaves into direct current (DC) electricity to power LEDs. The prototype sent power to a receiver on a rooftop of a Caltech Lab in Pasadena, California.
Ali Hajimiri, electrical and medical engineering professor leading the Caltech team said in a press announcement, “We had, of course, tested it on Earth, but now we know that it can survive the trip to space and operate there. To the best of our knowledge, no one has ever demonstrated wireless energy transfer in space even with expensive rigid structures. We are doing it with flexible lightweight structures and with our own integrated circuits. This is a first.”
Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum said, “The transition to renewable energy, critical for the world’s future, is limited today by energy storage and transmission challenges. Beaming solar power from space is an elegant solution that has moved one step closer to realization due to the generosity and foresight of the Brens. Donald Bren has presented a formidable technical challenge that promises a remarkable payoff for humanity: a world powered by uninterruptible renewable energy.”
Space-based solar power is being perceived as the future of clean energy. Caltech’s Space Solar Power Project (SSPP) was created in 2011 by Donald Bren, a philanthropist and lifetime member of the Caltech Board of Trustees, after he found out about the possibilities of producing solar energy in space.
Harry Atwater, Director of the Liquid Sunlight Alliance and a principal investigator of the project said, “Demonstration of wireless power transfer in space using lightweight structures is an important step toward space solar power and broad access to it globally. Solar panels already are used in space to power the International Space Station, for example, but to launch and deploy large enough arrays to provide power to Earth, SSPP has to design and create solar power energy transfer systems that are ultra-lightweight, cheap, and flexible.”
At the beginning of the week, the United Kingdom government announced 4.3 million pounds to finance various research projects. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London are developing wireless technology to transmit microwave energy from one place to another. And the US Naval Research Lab tested a space power experiment by transmitting power through laser beams to the International Space Station.
Even in the 1970s NASA and Department of Energy (DOE) were interested in space-based solar power, but its expense prevented them from pursuing the idea. Xiaodong Chen, microwave engineering professor at Queen Mary University of London said, “Even today the cost is the big issue when you are building such big infrastructure in space. The economics are starting to change, though, with the commercial space industry driving down launch costs. The most ambitious timeline so far is for this technology to be ready to power homes and businesses on Earth by 2050.”
However, as per the climate goals set in the Paris Agreement greenhouse gas emission goals need to reach Net Zero by 2050. According to a 2022 report on technology by European Space Agency, the world needs as much as renewable energy as possible and as soon as it can.