If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that billionaires love space. But as it turns out, not every billionaire is an egomaniac who wants to personally jump on a rocket and yeet themselves into orbit. Dare I say it… Some billionaires might be doing… good?
While Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are all participating in the rich guy space race, one billionaire — who was anonymous until very recently — has thrown more than $135 million behind the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)’s Space-based Solar Power Project (SSPP).
The project, which launched back in 2013, does what you’d expect — it aims to harness the power of solar energy in space.
If this technology can be properly developed and implemented on a larger scale, it has the potential to completely revolutionise renewable energy as we know it.
“Solar energy is the world’s most abundant energy resource,” SSPP researcher Harry Atwater, said in a statement.
“However, sunlight is intermittent at the earth’s surface. This ambitious project is a transformative approach to large-scale solar energy harvesting for the Earth that overcomes this intermittency and the need for energy storage, since sunlight shines continuously in space.”
The project isn’t new, but in the lead up to a major milestone — “a test launch of multifunctional technology-demonstrator prototypes that collect sunlight and convert it to electrical energy, transfer energy wirelessly in free-space using radio frequency (RF) electrical power, and deploy ultralight structures that will be used to integrate them” — Caltech has finally revealed the donors who made the whole thing possible.
Donald Bren, the chairman of major real estate empire Irvine Company and America’s richest real estate tycoon, donated the massive sum back in 2013 with his wife Brigitte through their foundation. If the name Irvine sounds familiar, that’s because Bren is also the man behind the City of Irvine, which is widely credited as one of America’s greenest cities.
“Donald Bren has brought the same drive and discipline that he has demonstrated with master planning communities to the Space Solar Program,” said Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum. “He has presented a remarkable technical challenge that promises a remarkable payoff for humanity: a world powered by uninterruptible renewable energy.”
In what seems like a world-first for billionaires doing space things, the Brens have precisely zero financial stake in the project, and won’t see any profits from the technology.
“It shows the magnitude of the generosity,” SSPP co-director Ali Hajimiri said in a statement.
“They really want to change the world and truly see this as an opportunity to make a lasting difference for the planet, while generating a broad range of novel technologies with impact in many areas such as wireless power, communications and sensing.”
The project’s first test will take place in early 2023. It’s unclear if or when this technology will impact our day-to-day energy consumption needs, but we can only hope.