While solar energy has long been touted as the key to solving the planet’s energy demands, the problem of efficiency has always hampered it. However, a team of engineers from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow believe that the key to solar energy isn’t here on Earth, but out in space.

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The team is currently testing equipment that they believe would act as a platform for solar panels to collect the sun’s energy and allow it to be transferred back to earth through microwaves or lasers.

They hope that these’solar satellites’ would be able to provide the planet with a reliable source of power that would allow valuable energy to be sent to remote areas and provide power to areas that are difficult to reach by traditional means.

Dr. Massimiliano Vasile, of the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is leading the space-based solar power research, said: “Space provides a fantastic source for collecting solar power and we have the advantage of being able to gather it regardless of the time of the day or indeed the weather conditions.

“In areas like the Sahara desert where quality solar power can be captured, it becomes very difficult to transport this energy to areas where it can be used. However, our research is focusing on how we can remove this obstacle and use space based solar power to target difficult to reach areas.

“By using either microwaves or lasers we would be able to beam the energy back down to earth, directly to specific areas. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy and would remove the need for storing energy coming from renewable sources on ground as it would provide a constant delivery of solar energy.

“Initially, smaller satellites will be able to generate enough energy for a small village but we have the aim, and indeed the technology available, to one day put a large enough structure in space that could gather energy that would be capable of powering a large city.”

Among the team’s innovations is a ‘space web’ that was used in an experiment over the Arctic Circle. The experiment, known as Suaineadh, was an important step forward in space construction design and showed that larger structures could be built on top of a lightweight spinning web, paving the way for the next stage in the solar power project.

Dr Vasile added: “The success of Suaineadh allows us to move forward with the next stage of our project which involves looking at the reflectors needed to collect the solar power.

“The current project, called SAM (Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane) will test the deployment of an ultra light cellular structure that can change shape once deployed. The structure is made of cells that are self-inflating in vacuum and can change their volume independently through nanopumps.

“The structure replicates the natural cellular structure that exists in all living things. The independent control of the cells would allow us to morph the structure into a solar concentrator to collect the sunlight and project it on solar arrays. The same structure can be used to build large space systems by assembling thousands of small individual units.”

If all goes to plan, one day we could have a network for solar satellites that would essentially ‘beam’ down energy for use all over the world.

+ University of Strathclyde

Via BBC News