Engineering researchers at the University of Strathclyde’s Institute for Energy & Environment are advancing in their part of a multinational project quest to build a space-based solar energy system that could one day be capable of supplying clean, renewable electricity at scales sufficient to power towns and cities anywhere in the world.
A base space platform deemed capable of supporting solar panels that would collect solar energy and equipment to transfer it to earth via microwaves or lasers has already been tested, according to a University of Strathclyde press release. “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,” commented research team leader Dr. Massimiliano Vasile.
“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.”
Sidestepping the Solar Energy Storage Problem
Microwaves or lasers will enable solar energy captured via collectors to be beamed directly to specific areas on earth, according to Vasile, providing a reliable, high-quality source of energy. It would also avoid having to address the vexing problem of storing intermittent energy from renewable sources as it would provide a constant stream of energy.
While initially working to perfect such a system on a small scale, conceptually there’s no reason a space-based solar energy system could not be scaled up to much greater capacity. “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.”
A team of Strathclyde science and engineering students last month carried out an innovative space-based design and construction project that proved larger structures can be built in space atop a spinning, lightweight web.
Suaineadh: A Spinning Web Solar Energy Platform in Space
Dubbed Suaineadh, “twisting” in Scots Gaelic, its success paves the way for the next stage in the research 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,” Dr. Vasile explained.
“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.”
Strathclyde University’s project team is part of a multinational NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts study that’s being led by Dr. John Mankins of Artemis Innovation. Strathclyde University’s project team represents the European contingent of a larger team that also includes American and Japanese researchers.
Image courtesy Mafic Studios