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Space-based solar panels could soon power our cities

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[Nov. 23, 2022: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Airbus power beam demonstration image. (Credit: Airbus)

By radiating solar energy, Europe can access more renewable energy in an independent way. Airbus has now demonstrated how this new technology concept can work in its X-Works Innovation Factory.

Airbus Power Beaming Demonstrator – How does it work?

Everything is lit, thumbs up. Jean-Dominique Coste, Yoann Theux and their colleagues have shown policy and industry decision makers the inner workings of a new energy concept that has hitherto been only on the radar of die-hard technologists: power beaming.

The underlying principle is quite simple, explains Jean-Dominique Coste, who is responsible for this technology, managed by Airbus’ Central Research and Technology and Blue Sky divisions: “The technology’s ability to capture sunlight and then transmit it wirelessly to shine.” On Earth, this solar energy would then provide electricity to cities, factories, homes, and eventually airplanes.

new energy network in the air

At least for this reason, says Coste, power beaming could offer Europe and other parts of the world enormous potential to tap renewable energy sources and contribute to the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

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“Power beaming technologies enable the creation of new energy networks in the sky and could help solve the energy problem,” says Coste. “They will enable countries to control their energy completely independently and to distribute it where necessary.”

The demonstration at Airbus’ X-Works innovation factory on September 27, 2022 was a success, albeit on a smaller scale: Cost, Thukes and their colleagues used microwave beams to create a green wedge between two points representing ‘space’ and ‘earth’ . Energy was transferred. 36 meters away, producing green hydrogen and bringing a model city to life.

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“Now that we have tested the key building blocks of the future space-based solar energy system for the first time on a small scale, we are ready to take power beaming to the next level,” says Yoann Theux.

Power Beaming Demonstrator – Project (Credit: Airbus)

The demo was undoubtedly successful, but how does the technology work in practice? “We are looking at a number of designs,” explains Theux. However, one thing is already clear: if the satellites were to catch sunlight, they would have to be about 2 kilometers wide to achieve the same power as a nuclear power plant.

Independent and sustainable power supply around the clock

The benefits of collecting solar energy in space are clear, says Theukes: “Outside Earth’s atmosphere, sunlight is available indefinitely, not just during the day and in fair weather as on Earth, plus it’s about 50 percent more intense .” For example, in geostationary orbit, about 36,000 km above the Earth, a solar panel the same size as one of its Earth counterparts can generate significantly more electricity.

Power Beaming Project – How does it work? (Credit: Airbus)

The collected power is transported over a large area in a safe and controlled manner. Back on Earth, a large number of antennas spread over a wide area, even offshore, would pick up the beam and regroup the energy to produce electricity.

“The beam easily passes through clouds, so power losses are minimal. The technology can also be designed to prevent damage to birds or people flying in airplanes,” Coste assures. Moreover, there is no need for, for example, complex and expensive ground infrastructure, power plants, pipelines or cables to distribute electricity on earth. This is also done by means of power beaming.

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Coste estimates that the leveled energy costs are comparable to those of large-scale energy projects on Earth, such as nuclear power plants, oil rigs and large renewable farms. However, due to economies of scale, costs will decrease as more power plants are built. A geostationary solar farm would generate about 2 gigawatts of electricity – the equivalent of a large fossil fuel or nuclear power plant on Earth.

Power rays: reality in 10 years?

By the early 2030s, the first working power beaming prototype could be up and running. But there is still work to be done. An important area of ​​research relates to overall efficiency: extracting more energy than you consume.

“We advocate taking one step to scale up the system: from the ground to airborne systems and then into space,” explains Jean-Dominique Coste, adding: “It would really be a game-changer for airplanes.” which has the potential to increase range, to reduce weight, but also to transmit power to other locations, manage energy like data. This has led to great interest in the energy sector. Ultimately, it can be used by institutions and energy. There will be a joint effort with the industry.”

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