January 20, 2010

EADS Astrium Seeks To Demonstrate Solar Power In Space

EADS Astrium is looking for partners to help demonstrate a solar power mission in orbit, reported BBC News.

According to EADS Astrium, Europe's largest space company, the satellite system would gather energy from the Sun and send it to Earth by using an infrared laser to provide electricity.

While solar power in space has been the subject of discussion for more than 30 years, cost, efficiency and safety have been points keeping it from becoming a reality.

However, Astrium believes the technology has almost come to full maturity.

"Today we are not at an operational stage; it's just a test," said chief executive officer Francois Auque. "In order to implement a solution, of course, we would need to find partnerships and to invest, to develop operational systems," he told BBC News.

Such partnerships could be made with space agencies, the EU or national governments and even power companies, said Auque.

If a viable solution can be found for a cheap, efficient and safe way of harnessing space solar power, it would provide a clean, inexhaustible energy that would be available 24 hours a day.

The amount of energy dropping on photovoltaic cells put into space is much greater than the same solar panels positioned on the Earth's surface. Light is unaffected by clouds, dust or the filtering effects of atmospheric gases in space.

There are several issues to be overcome first. Critics have pointed out obstacles, such as the cost of launching and assembling large solar stations in orbit, to the losses in efficiency in conversion, and to the safety issues with some wireless transmission methods, especially those using microwaves.

The safety issues can be solved by using infrared lasers that would not destroy anything if misdirected, Astrium said.

Power transmission has already been tested by using a laser in Astrium's labs, and the company is now working on improving the efficiencies of the end-to-end system.

Astrium's chief technology officer Robert Laine acknowledged that there are still some hurdles to clear.

"Today, we will be limited in power by the size of the laser we can build. That's a prime limitation," he told BBC News.

"On the receive side, the conversion of this infrared energy into electricity, that's something which is progressing very fast and we are working with the University of Surrey [in the UK] to develop converters.

"The principle is to get a very high efficiency of conversion of the infrared [laser light] into electricity. If we achieve 80% then it's a real winner."

A small demonstration of the technology should be ready for take-off in the coming decade, said Laine.

"Like any technology, someone has to demonstrate it first before it can become an operational system," he told BBC News.

"We have reached a point where, in the next five years, we could build something which is in the order of 10-20 kW to transmit useful energy to the ground."


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