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The concept is not new and several laboratories around the world are investigating the feasibility of this type of project. But Xi’an-based LONGi Green Energy Technology Company seems to be particularly advanced in this regard. The continuous collection of solar energy through space-based solar panels and its subsequent transmission and use on Earth could help meet the global demand for energy without greenhouse gas emissions.
The idea is to eliminate the main drawback of photovoltaic panels, which is that they can only work when the sun is shining. Solar panels placed in Earth orbit can actually use the sun’s energy permanently, not just on sunny days. The project could mark the beginning of a permanent collaboration between the solar sector and China’s space program. Wu Zhijian, president of the China Space Foundation, even mentions “off-planet” power plants.
The main challenge of this project is not so much the design of the panels themselves, but the development of a system for the wireless transmission of energy to ground receiving stations, which would be in charge of converting it into electricity. However, scientists at Xidian University in Shaanxi said earlier this year that they had successfully tested a technology specifically designed to transmit solar energy from space. This is based on the conversion of sunlight into microwave rays.
A potential stepping stone to achieving climate goals
The system captures sunlight above the ground and then converts it into microwave beams, which are then sent through the air to a receiving station on the ground, where they can be converted into electricity. While experiments with the technology have only been conducted at an altitude of 55 meters, the researchers hope that their system can be extended to cover long distances between the orbiting panels and Earth.
LONGi’s new laboratory dedicated to the project, the LONGi Green Energy Future Energy Space Laboratory, will begin testing the use of its technology on Earth, in a harsh environment, to assess its suitability for use in space programs, according to the company’s press release. ” On the ground, the real space environment will be simulated and changes in the relevant product performance will be monitored. “, explains the company. The lab will also study plans for energy and environmental monitoring satellites from space.
Note that CalTech is also working on designing space-based solar panels and unveiled its first prototypes in 2017 — thanks to a donation of more than 100 million dollars Donald Bren, president of the Irvine Company. The first prototypes of the Space-based Solar Power Project (SSPP) are expected to launch in early 2023; their transmission system is also based on high frequency radio waves. Teams in Japan, Russia and India are also working on the topic, Bloomberg reports.
British Government It also plans to build a solar power plant in space by 2035. More than 50 UK technology organizations have joined the UK Space Energy Initiative, which launched in 2021 to explore the feasibility of the estimated £17bn project. Experts believe a space power plant could help the UK reach its target of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Panels that could deteriorate quickly
According to the platform Our world in data, global primary energy consumption exceeded 165,000 TWh in 2021; the share of solar energy was only 2700 TWh. If the LONGi technology works, it could be revolutionary. However, it raises some problems. The weight of solar panels was initially one of the main problems to be solved, but the development of ultralight solar cells has made it possible to overcome this problem. However, building a single space solar power plant will require numerous shuttle launches – transporting cargo and generating significant greenhouse gas emissions.
According to a statement he made ElectrekDerek Wise, Editor at Company Space explored, correctly points out that even if space-based solar panels offer two to three times the efficiency of Earth-based solar panels, they will not offset the tens of millions of dollars required to launch them. ” We already have too much space junk and a large constellation of satellites in orbit. There are no regulations to ensure that operators work together to avoid each other and adding more will not improve the situation adds Seth Kurkowski, also editor of Space Explored.
Additionally, solar panels can not only be damaged by space debris, but are likely to degrade much faster than on Earth – because they won’t be protected by Earth’s atmosphere and will be constantly exposed to extremely high radiation.intense.
Despite particularly high investment costs and uncertain returns, some supporters of the project remain confident. ” LONGi Green Energy has contributed significantly to the substantial reduction in the cost of photovoltaics, making photovoltaics the cheapest electricity in history said Martin Green, an expert in the development and use of solar energy and a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Thanks to its space project, the company will undoubtedly continue to improve its terrestrial technologies a little more. The technology could also be useful for a future sustainable human presence on the Moon or even Mars.