New Tower in China Brings Us a Step Closer to Space-Based Solar Power

New Tower in China Brings Us a Step Closer to Space-Based Solar Power
The 75-metre-tall (74.98 m) ground structure transmits energy wirelessly across approximately 55 meters (54.86 m) (Image: Xidian University)

Researchers at China’s Xidian University are claiming to have completed testing and inspection of a ground array that could pave the way to space-based solar power — a concept long heralded as a potential solution to our energy woes.

Researchers at Xidian University ran a successful test of the “world’s first full-link and full-system solar power plant” on June 5, according to a translated statement published today by the university. The plant is a 74.98 m-tall steel structure located on Xidian University’s southern campus, and it’s equipped with with five different subsystems meant to foster the eventual development of space-based solar power arrays.

In theory, satellites could continuously collect photons from the Sun, convert them to electricity using photovoltaic cells, and wirelessly beam that electricity as microwaves back to receivers on the surface — like the one at Xidian University. While the idea sounds like a far-fetched engineering problem for our descendants, it was actually proposed as far back as the 1960s by scientist Peter Glaser. Space-based solar power could sidestep some of the fundamental issues with solar power collection here on Earth; there’s no need to wait for daylight or clear weather to harvest the incoming energy. But like most space-based solutions to real-world problems, the main issues would be the cost of launching these satellites and building the space-based solar collectors, in addition to some dicey technological and safety hurdles.

The newly built ground station is a part of the team’s space-based solar power proposal called OMEGA, which stands for Orb-Shape Membrane Energy Gathering Array. Once built and parked in geostationary orbit, OMEGA will collect energy from the Sun, convert it to electrical energy, and transmit it to Earth as microwaves via antenna.

OMEGA was first proposed in 2014 by Duan Baoyan from the Xidian University School of Electromechanical Engineering and his colleagues. Two years earlier, NASA announced the similar SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large Phased Array) concept, which would feature a single space-based satellite comprised of several smaller elements that could transmit power back to Earth. Baoyan is one of the lead researchers on China’s ground array research, which will be used to test possible OMEGA subsystems, including the conversion of sunlight into energy and the wireless transmission of it.

One of the most notable outcomes of OMEGA so far is that the researchers were successful in transmitting energy wirelessly as microwaves over a distance of approximately 54.86 m. This ability, to transmit wireless energy to a receiving station, represents a critically important element of a future space-based solar power infrastructure. The successful test earlier this month puts the researchers three years ahead of the project’s schedule, according to the press release.

That said, Baoyan further acknowledged that widespread transmission of space-based solar power could still be generations away.

The idea of space-based solar power is promising, and it could help to wean us off our global reliance on fossil fuels. Building such a complex system presents a massive challenge, but has the potential to revolutionise the way we collect energy. And while the research from Xidian University offers an impressive proof-of-concept, it’s only one step toward a more sustainable future.

More: NASA moves ahead with wild solar sail concept.