Billionaire Donald Bren was behind a low-profile donation of $ 100 million in 2013 that established Caltech’s Solar Space Project (SSPP) with the goal of harnessing solar power from space. , the private research university of California revealed this week.
The real estate mogul took inspiration from a 2011 article in Popular Science (maybe this one?). He also knew a thing or two about electricity distribution issues from his background in planning cities like Irvine, California.
Bren then approached Caltech to discuss his ideas. Caltech said he has no interest in the technology and will not earn any income from it. The donation is disclosed now, eight years later, as SSPP wants to highlight the next steps of the project.
In early 2023, the organization is launching technology demonstrating prototypes that collect and convert sunlight into electrical energy, transferring energy wirelessly using RF and a deployable 6 x 6 foot ultralight structure. that incorporates power.
By integrating solar power and RF conversion into a single element, SSPP claims the spacecraft bypasses a power distribution grid, mitigating localized outages and making the structure scalable.
The SSPP website describes the benefits of using solar power harnessed in space, which basically boils down to the lack of shade and the nighttime hours that we Earthlings are forced to endure:
The previous prototypes were launched in 2017. In May, a prototype with 1.5 kg / m2 The areal density collected solar energy and transmitted it to Caltech. Seven months later, photovoltaic and power transfer circuits were added to the even lighter design (1 kg / m2 area density) and beam direction has been incorporated.
The idea of space solar panel technology has been around for some time, but its measurable potential is continuously improving. In 1941, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov described space stations transmitting solar energy via microwave beams in his short story Raison. In the early 1970s, Peter Glaser obtained a patent for a design to transmit energy from the satellite to the ground using microwaves.
In the late 1970s, NASA explored the concept with the US Department of Energy and revisited it in 1999 as part of the Space Solar Power Exploratory Research and Technology (SERT) program. A year earlier, in 1998, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) had started to develop a space solar power system. This program still operates today.
More recently, the US Naval Research Laboratory performed its first test of solar power generation in a satellite in May 2020 to assess the efficiency of the process. The research lab’s PRAM-FX harvests and converts solar energy using a 12-inch square tile surface.
If the Bren-funded SSPP continues to be successful with its technology demonstrations and tests, it may be another six years before the world sees it applied for usable applications from clean renewable energy, hopefully affordable. . ®