Complex Made Simple

Fact, not fiction: China, US, want to harvest solar energy directly in space

Since the idea first appeared in science fiction, countries have been envisioning a way for humanity to harvest solar energy directly in space.

China plans to accomplish a 200-tonne megawatt-level space-based solar power station by 2035 With an investment of 200 million yuan (28.4 million U.S. dollars), China is building a testing base in Bishan, southwest China's Chongqing Municipality The American Naval Research Lab has already demonstrated a potential precursor to the technology

It’s been known for years, before a study was even published this year, that the smog and high levels of air pollution in China have been hampering the country’s efforts to draw power from solar rays. With the graphite-colored cloudy skies China has come to be known for, it makes sense why solar panels are having difficulty doing their jobs properly. 

Now, it seems China is developing a groundbreaking workaround, and the US is in on the challenge as well, for different reasons. 

The answer is in space

A news report released by Xinhua this week revealed that China plans to accomplish a 200-tonne megawatt-level space-based solar power station by 2035, according to the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

Why bother with capturing a fraction of the sun’s rays that makes it to the surface of the Earth through layers of atmosphere, clouds and pollution when you can directly harvest it as it approaches Earth? In essence, that’s the philosophy at play here. 

The space-based solar power station would capture the sun’s energy that never makes it to the planet, said Wang Li, a CAST research fellow with the program, when attending the sixth China-Russia Engineering Forum held last week in Xiamen, southeast China’s Fujian Province.

The way it works 

The energy is converted to microwaves or lasers and then beamed wirelessly back to the Earth’s surface for human consumption, Wang explained.

Compared with traditional fossil energy, which has been increasingly exhausted and is responsible for severe environmental issues, space-based solar power is more efficient and sustainable, providing a reliable power supply solution for satellites and disaster-hit areas or isolated areas on the Earth, Wang continued.

Where did this idea originate?

According to Xinhua, the concept of collecting solar power in space was popularized by science fiction author Isaac Asimov in 1941. In 1968, Peter Glaser, an American aerospace engineer, wrote a formal proposal for a solar-based system in space.

China has proposed various sunlight collecting solutions and made a number of major breakthroughs in wireless energy transmission since the country listed space-based solar power as a key research program in 2008.

However, ambition has long been a challenge for current technology because it involves the launch and installation of numerous solar panel modules and the efficient wireless transmission of mega energy.

With an investment of 200 million yuan (28.4 million U.S. dollars), China is building a testing base in Bishan, southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality, for the research of high-power wireless energy transmission and its impact on the environment.

Researches in this field will spur the country’s space science and innovation in emerging industries like commercial space transportations, Wang said.

America also showing interest in space-harvested solar energy
Like China, the US has had its eyes on the concept of harvesting solar energy directly from space, similar inspired by Asimov’ fiction. 

“In 1975, after partnering with the Department of Energy on a series of space solar power feasibility studies, NASA beamed 30 kilowatts of power over a mile using a giant microwave dish,” Wired said

Since then, there’s been little to no progress – until this year. 

The Naval Research Lab demonstrated to spectators at the David Taylor Model Basin a breakthrough: They were able to transmit energy – specifically 400 watts – across hundreds of meters of air without any wiring or cables, to power a coffee machine at the end. While basic in application, this experiment sought to show us the potential future of energy, where not even air or the void of space would limit our ability to transfer energy. 

The ultimate goal of an experiment like this, Wired explained, is “beaming solar power to Earth from space.”

The US, like China, seems to have faith in this prospect. 

“In October, the Air Force Research Lab announced a $100 million program to develop hardware for a solar power satellite. It’s an important first step toward the first demonstration of space solar power in orbit,” Wired continued. 

So are we facing a new space race of sorts? Potentially, but results are still a very long way off. All we can hope for now is for some legitimate breakthroughs to be made to ensure we can see science fiction become the opposite: hard, concrete science.