Researchers eye space-based solar power

Solar power collected in space could ultimately be tapped to provide the renewable energy of the future.

Indeed, engineers at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow have already tested equipment in space that would provide a platform for solar panels to collect energy and transfer it back to earth via a system of microwaves or lasers.

According to Dr. Massimiliano Vasile, the platform has the definite potential to provide a reliable source of power – allowing valuable energy to be sent to remote areas in the world that are difficult to reach by traditional means.

“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,” he explained.

“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.”

As noted above, Vasile and his team envision a network of microwaves or lasers to beam the energy back down to earth. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy – effectively removing the need for storing energy generated by renewable sources on ground.

“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,” he said.

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.

“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 space systems by assembling thousands of small individual units,” Vasile added.