The Sahara Desert may be a wonderful place to gather solar power, but it’s a lousy location to then transfer that power somewhere else. New research from engineers at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow have decided to pursue an even more extreme place — they are promoting the idea of gathering solar energy from space. But it may actually improve accessibility.
The university researchers have already tested equipment in space that would provide a platform for solar panels to collect energy and allow it to be transferred back to Earth through microwaves or lasers.
Such a development would provide a reliable power source across the world, where previously transferring solar power had been difficult. Not all terrain allows for good generation of solar energy, and those that do are not necessarily near habitable regions. Moreover, in times of natural disaster, such technology could be invaluable in the wake of destroyed infrastructure.
“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,” said Dr Massimiliano Vasile, of the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is leading the space based solar power research.
“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.
“By using either microwaves or lasers we would be able to beam the energy back down to earth, directly to specific areas. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy and would remove the need for storing energy coming from renewable sources on ground as it would provide a constant delivery of solar energy.
“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.”
April saw a team of science and engineering students at Strathclyde complete a space web experiment that was launched into the edge of space from the Arctic Circle. The experiment — known as Suaineadh, or ‘twisting’ in Scots Gaelic — was an important step forward for the construction of larger structures.
Dr Vasile added: “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.
“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.”