With the effects of climate change worsening by the day, scientists around the world are venturing into the world of renewables in search of a better alternative for producing clean energy. Many countries are turning toward the use of solar energy as it is one of the cleanest and most sustainable forms of alternative energy. For instance, Singapore has built one of the largest floating solar farms in the world to reduce its reliance on natural gas for the production of electricity. That being so, researchers have now extended their study of generating solar power not only from the Earth but also in space!
The concept of capturing solar power from space and then transferring it to Earth was first introduced in the 1920s by a scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Now, scientists are bringing this concept to reality by developing a new form of cutting-edge technology known as the space-based solar power station (SSP). An SSP works the same way as it does on Earth, except that it floats in space. The solar power station collects energy from the sun using large sheets of metal known as solar panels. Each solar panel is made up of combining multiple photovoltaic cells, also known as solar cells. Solar cells are the key component in a solar panel that helps to create an electric current when it comes into contact with sunlight. For energy to be utilised on Earth in the form of electricity, solar panels in space have to transmit the collected solar energy back to earth through radio waves.
Why Build A Solar Power Station in Space?
Today, solar power plants can be found in many countries like India, China and the US. Each solar plant consists of millions of solar panels which can help generate electricity for as many as 200,000 homes. However, solar plants on Earth can only function during the day to produce energy, when there is sunlight. Their ability to effectively capture sunlight also depends on environmental factors like weather, cloud cover, air pollutants and dust.
Unlike on Earth, solar panels in space can be directly exposed to more powerful sunlight at all times of the day. It is estimated that solar panels in space can generate up to 2,000 gigawatts of power constantly. This is nearly 40 times more energy than a solar panel would generate on Earth. With such potential, space-based solar stations can undoubtedly help offset the rate of carbon emissions produced through the burning of non-renewables like fossil fuels.
Challenges to Building A Solar Power Station in Space
Although deemed more functional and effective, there are some challenges to successfully build and maintain a space-based solar power station. Currently, one of the most significant issues is about finding a safe and suitable way to send the energy generated in space back to Earth for consumption. The main concern is that some of the energy will be lost during the travel, leaving only a small amount of solar energy that may reach Earth in the end.
There are other challenges to building a solar power station in space, given that a single solar plant may be as huge as 1,400 football stadiums. To build something of this size, a large number of heavy solar panels will need to be taken into space using rockets. This will require countless rocket launches from Earth, which is expensive and harmful to the environment. On top of this, solar panels in space can be damaged by space debris or any floating objects. They may also degrade faster from being continuously exposed to extremely powerful radiation from the sun.
Future of Solar Power Stations in Space
Despite the challenges, countries like China, the UK, the US, and Japan are already making huge strides in improving current technology and experimenting with building small solar power stations in space. For instance, the UK is planning to undertake a huge project to build a solar power station in space as part of the government’s Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, to achieve net zero energy consumption by 2050. Similarly, researchers from Japan and the US are working on developing high-efficiency solar cells that can help with the safe conversion and transmission of solar energy from space to Earth.
With more developments, this groundbreaking invention of building solar power stations in space can revolutionise the future of renewables while helping to curb the effects of climate change on our planet.
Written by Samiksha Manoharan
Illustrated by Lim Daphne