Blinded by the light.

Photo by blueforce4116 |

The looming global energy crisis has the search for ways to harness renewable energy highly motivated; wind, water, and solar energy are among some of the energy sources to potentially draw from. Solar radiation is of the most consistent and abundant sources out there, however our technological inability to harness it properly makes current solar energy production low.

Much of the problem lies in the fact that Earth is a dynamic environment and trying to catch sunlight is affected by the atmosphere, vegetation, Earth's rotation, and wildlife among other things.

In the 1941 Issac Asimov published a short story that depicted a space station that absorbed radiation from orbit and beamed it to distant planets in the form of microwave lasers. This spurred the interest in Space-Based Solar Panels, or SBSP; a solar collection system virtually unaffected by Earth's influence, able to function 24 hours a day, as well as collecting vast quantities of energy.

The technology of photovoltaic cells has been well developed and even the technology to transfer power through microwave laser beams (unaffected by gas in Earth's atmosphere) exists. Of course the question of whether or not a system like this would be built boils down to one elusive necessity: money.

The cost of transporting material to space is too high to make a major project like this possible.

In 1999 NASA implemented the Space Solar Power Exploratory Research and Technology program to investigate SBSP.  They concluded that transportation costs must lower to around 100-200$ per kg to be economically viable. As it stands, current prices are in the thousands of dollars per kilogram with RND projects from companies like SpaceX projecting future missiles such as the Falcon Heavy to cost around 450$ per kilogram at best.

Although this implies a bleak future for the hopes of an SBSP project there is one saving grace that could turn everything around. Ideas of building a Space-Elevator to transport people and material into space have been in development for some time, especially with the creation of the world’s strongest and most flexible material, graphene.

In fact the company Obayashi out of Japan have seriously considered a project that could be completed by as early as 2050. The construction of a space-elevator would reduce costs of transporting material to space to about 220$ per kg according to space engineer Bradley C. Edwards. With a space-elevator in place, constructing an SBSP array becomes a realistic possibility. While the upfront costs of a space-elevator are very high, the energy provided by potential SBSP arrays could induce a steady flow of capital that could be put towards this initial cost.

With some more minds like Issac Asimov and a little imagination perhaps the answer to save our future will be illuminated by the blinding brilliance of our own star, the Sun.