$ 100 million donation fuels decade-long moonshot to create solar satellites that transmit energy to Earth – TechCrunch


It sounds like a plan concocted by a supervillain, if this villain’s dastardly end was to provide clean, cheap energy around the world: launch a three-kilometer-wide array of solar panels that project the energy from the sun at the surface. Even the price to pay seems gleaned from pop fiction: a hundred million dollars. But this is a real project at Caltech, funded for almost a decade largely by a single funder.

The solar space power project has been going on since at least 2013, when Donald and Brigitte Bren’s first donation arrived. Donald Bren is the President of Irvine Company and a member of the Caltech Board of Directors. for. The source of the funds remained anonymous until this week, when Caltech made it public.

The idea emerges naturally from the current limits of renewable energies. Solar energy is ubiquitous on the surface, but of course highly dependent on the weather, season and time of day. No solar panel, even under ideal circumstances, can operate at full capacity all the time, and so the problem becomes one of energy transfer and storage in a smart grid. No solar panel on earth, This is.

An orbiting solar panel, however, can be exposed to full sunlight almost all the time, and without the reduction in its power that comes from that light passing through the planet’s protective atmosphere and magnetosphere.

The latest prototype created by the SSPP, which captures sunlight and transmits it on microwave frequencies.

“This ambitious project is a transformative approach to large-scale solar energy harvesting for Earth that overcomes this intermittency and the need for energy storage,” SSPP researcher Harry Atwater said in the Caltech statement.

Of course, you’d need to collect enough energy to make it worth it in the first place, and you need a way to bring that energy to the surface in a way that doesn’t waste most of it. part in favor of the aforementioned protective layers, but also does not fry anything in its path.

These fundamental questions have been examined systematically over the past decade, and the team is clear that without Bren’s support this project would not have been possible. Attempting to get the job done while researching scholarships and alternating graduate students might have hindered doing so, but the constant funding meant they could hire long-term researchers and overcome early hurdles that might have hindered them otherwise.

The group has produced dozens of published studies and prototypes (which you can view here), including the lightest solar collector-emitter by an order of magnitude, and is now set to launch its first satellite of space test.

“[Launch] is currently expected to be the first quarter of 2023, ”project co-director Ali Hajimiri told TechCrunch. “It involves several demonstrators for the spatial verification of the key technologies involved in the effort, namely remote wireless energy transfer, lightweight flexible photovoltaics, and flexible deployable space structures.”

Diagram showing how tiles like the one above could be put together to form strips, then spacecraft, then arrays of spacecraft.

These will be small scale tests (around 6 feet in diameter), but the vision is for something a little bigger. Bigger than anything in space right now, in fact.

“The final system should consist of several air-deployable modules in close formation and operating in synchronization with each other,” Hajimiri said. “Each module is several tens of meters square and the system can be built by adding more modules over time.”

Image of the appearance of the final space solar installation, a collection of orbiting cells several kilometers wide.

Image credits: Caltech

Ultimately, the concept calls for a structure perhaps as large as 5 to 6 kilometers in diameter. Don’t worry, it would be far enough from Earth that you wouldn’t see a giant hexagon obstructing the stars. The energy would be sent to surface receivers using directed and steerable microwave transmission. A few of them in orbit could transmit energy to any location on the planet full time.

Of course, that is the vision, which is many, many years away if it is to come to fruition. But don’t make the mistake of seeing this as one lofty, if not grandiose, goal. The pursuit of this idea has produced advancements in solar cells, flexible space structures, and wireless energy transfer, each of which can be applied in other fields. The vision may be science fiction, but the science is progressing in a very ingrained way.

For his part, Bren seems happy to just move the ball forward on what he sees as an important task that might not have been attempted at all otherwise.

“I have been studying the possible applications of space solar energy for many years,” he told Caltech. “My interest in supporting Caltech’s world-class scientists is driven by my belief in harnessing the sun’s natural power for the benefit of all. “

We will check with the SSPP before launch.

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