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By Denise Chow and Alyssa Newcomb
With the acceleration of the green energy transition, solar farms have become a familiar sight across the nation and around the world. But China is taking solar energy to a whole new level. The nation has announced plans to put a solar power plant into orbit by 2050, a feat that would make it the first nation to harness solar energy in space and shine it to Earth.
As the sun always shines in outer space, in space solar power is regarded as a uniquely reliable source of renewable energy.
"You do not have to deal with the day and night cycle and you do not have to deal with clouds or seasons. You have eight to nine times more power available," says Ali Hajimiri, a professor of electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and Director of the Space Solar Power Project of the University.
Of course, the development of hardware that is available for detecting and transmitting solar energy and launching the system into space is difficult and costly, but China is on the rise: The nation is building a test facility in the southwestern city of Chongqing to determine the best way to transfer solar energy from orbit to the ground, the China Daily reported.
An old idea picked up again
The idea of space-based solar energy Being a reliable source of renewable energy is not new, it started in the 1
"We're seeing a bit of resurgence now, and that's probably because this is possible thanks to new technologies," said John Mankins, a physicist who led NASA's efforts in this area in the 1990s before the space agency
Population growth may be another reason for Mankin's renewed interest in space-based solar power, with the world's population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, experts might say that this could become an important path to cover the world's energy needs – especially in Japan, Northern Europe and other parts of the world that are not particularly sunny.
"Looking at the next 50 years, the energy needs are amazing," he said Wherever the sun shines always can reap and deliver it essentially without interruptions on the earth n can – and all at an affordable price – then you win. "
Make it Real
China's plans were not published, but Mankins says one way to harness the use of solar energy in space would be the launch of tens of thousands of "solar satellites" that would form a huge conical structure located about 22,000 miles above the Earth
The blackening satellites were covered with the photovoltaic panels needed to convert sunlight into electricity which were to be converted into microwaves and transmitted wirelessly to ground-based receivers – huge wire meshes up to four kilometers in diameter. These could be installed over lakes or over deserts or farmland.
According to estimates by Mankins, such a solar system could generate a steady current of 2,000 gigawatts. The largest terrestrial solar farms generate only about 1.8 gigawatts.
If that sounds promising, experts point out that there are still many hurdles to overcome, including finding a way to reduce the weight of solar panels.
"State-of-the-art photovoltaics may now be 30 percent more efficient," said Caltech researcher Terry Gdoutos, who works with Hajimiri on space-based solar research. "The biggest challenge is to lower mass without to affect efficiency. " The Caltech team recently built a pair of ultralight photovoltaic tile prototypes, demonstrating that they can collect 10 gigahertz of energy and transmit wirelessly. Gdoutos said the prototypes have successfully fulfilled all the functions that real solar satellites would have to do in space, and he and his colleagues are exploring ways to further reduce the weight of the tiles.
The road in the future
China has no It was not known how much it spends on the development of its solar power plants. Mankins said that even a small test to demonstrate the different technologies would probably cost at least $ 150 million, adding that his planned solar flare would cost around $ 10 billion.
Despite its inflated price, Mankins remains a staunch price advocate of space-based solar energy.
"Soil-based solar is a wonderful thing, and we will always have ground-based solar," he said. "Rooftop solar is fabulous for many locations, but Arizona is not like it all over the world. Millions of people live where large, ground-based solar systems are not economical. "
Mankins welcomed recent developments in the field and said he wanted to follow China's new initiative. "The interest from China is really striking," he said. "Fifteen years ago, they did not exist in this community. Now they are taking a strong leadership position.
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NBC NEWS MAKE UP TWITTER FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM Denise Chow is a reporter and editor at NBC News MACH.