Harnessing the sun

Published July 3, 2023
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

HUMANITY’S achievements are limited only by the scope of our imagination and our technological capability to build what we can imagine. Indeed, you could argue that the prime trait that separates us from the rest of creation is that we can imagine what does not yet exist, and then make that imagination a reality.

Sometimes going from imagination to execution takes a while; the first piece of literature that we could safely dub ‘science fiction’ was written in the second century AD by a satirist named Lucian of Samosata. Titled A True Story, this work saw the protagonists travel to the moon and find themselves in the midst of a war between the king of the moon and the king of the sun over who gets to colonise Venus.

Seventeen hundred years later, mankind did set foot on the moon, though we have yet to encounter extraterrestrial life. Even the moon landing may not have been possible without Robert Goddard’s development of liquid-fuelled rockets, a result of his lifelong fascination with space exploration; a fascination that was born when he read H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of Earth. Had there been no science fiction, science itself would have suffered.

There are many lesser-known visionaries to whom we owe a debt, visionaries like 19th-century Russian theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who is called ‘the father of spaceflight’ because of his theoretical work on space travel and rocket propulsion. He is also credited with the concept of the space elevator, a device that often finds mention in science fiction. That’s fitting because he himself was inspired by the works of Jules Verne!

Without science fiction, science would have suffered.

Tsiolkovsky also dreamed of beaming the sun’s energy directly down to Earth by deploying a series of mirrors that would beam concentrated sunlight down to Earth. Perhaps this provided inspiration to Isaac Asimov, whose 1941 story Reason featured a massive space station that would harness energy from the sun and beam it to other planets in the solar system. Just a few decades later, Nasa engineer Peter Glasser developed the first engineering design for what such a station would look like and was granted a patent for his microwave-based method for transferring the power down to Earth.

It makes sense to try; the sun is a gigantic fusion reactor and every second it blasts out a stupendous 384.6 septillion watts of energy into the void of space; every second it produces 120 times the amount of energy that the entire US consumes in a year. Of course, only a fraction — about a billionth — of the total energy produced by the sun ever reaches earth, and out of this only about 48 per cent reaches the ground, with the rest being reflected back to space by clouds or bright surfaces such as ice and snow and some being absorbed in the atmosphere.

The still stupendous amount of energy that does reach the ground is what supports life here, allowing plants to spin sunbeams into sugar through the miracle of photosynthesis and thus sustaining a complex ecosystem and keeping the rest of us alive. More and more of this energy is being harnessed by solar panels, and energy produced in this way now accounts for 4.4pc of global energy production and is set to rise. In the coming years — as theorised over a century ago — the solar panels may not be on Earth but orbiting around it.

In June this year, the first tantalising proof that this may be possible came when the US-based Space Solar Power project used its Microwave Array for Power-transfer Low-orbit Experiment (MAPLE) to successfully beam solar power to Earth for the first time in history. This portends well for the future of solar energy because space-based solar energy harvesting could potentially yield eight times as much power as surface solar panels.

The US congress has taken note, with one congressman saying “the technology that once made this source of energy the work of science fiction is now much cheaper, and easier to deploy than ever, putting it within reach”.

The UK has announced millions of pounds of funding for such projects and Europe is also considering making serious investments. Japan, a leading global technological hub, which had in 2015 successfully managed to wirelessly beam 1.8 kilowatts of power over a short distance, is planning to conduct its own orbital test by 2025 and China, never afraid to go big, is envisioning an orbital power plant that could produce a gigawatt of power. Private companies like space start-ups Orbital composites and Virtus Solis, are also getting into the act by collaborating on building a megawatt-scale orbiting power station that will beam solar energy directly down to Earth. Truly, the seeds of the future are planted in the past and, if we’re lucky and know where to look, we can see them sprouting in our present.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2023

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