Straight from the pages of science fiction, China says it plans on building a massive, orbiting solar farm in space. The energy plant would beam a powerful solar beam towards ground stations 24 hours a day.
Orbiting solar farms have been in scientific consciousness since the 1960s. The concept rose to prominence because it circumvents the limitations of earthbound solar farms, such as limited sunlight exposure because of the day/night cycle.
Construction of a $15.4 million testing facility is underway in China’s southwestern city of Chongqing. Three years ago, development at the site was halted when cost, feasibility and potential danger linked to the futuristic concept was brought into question. However, construction resumed in June this year.
The facility will conduct tests around the viability of several key technologies critical to the solar farm’s success. Some crucial checks that need to be made include if the high-energy beam emitted from space could penetrate cloud cover and other unpredictable weather phenomena effectively. In addition, making sure the energy – travelling an incredible distance to get to Earth – is as accurate as possible.
Farming energy from the sun in space instead of on Earth means the station, at 36 000 kilometres above sea level, is exposed to daylight for 24 hours because it orbits outside of the Earth’s shadow.
The energy, harvested in the form of high-frequency microwaves, could keep energy retainment near 98%, with only 2% dispelled over the vast distance because of issues like cloud cover.
The wireless transfer of energy has been toyed with by the scientific community for more than a century but the technology has been limited to short-range devices like wireless chargers.
To prove that moving huge amounts of power over immense distances accurately is even possible, Chinese researchers plan to conduct several small-scale experiments using balloons. They confirmed they received wireless energy from a range of 300 metres.
According to Science China Daily, when the ground station is complete, they intend to enter the stratosphere, increasing the distance by 20 kilometres with an airship.
Should the project fail, the dangers it poses are significant. An erratic radiation beam of ultra-high frequency microwaves could affect communications, air traffic and cause other serious damage to infrastructure and property. The 2 000-square-kilometre testing site is off-access to civilians.
Professor Ge Changchun, a top scientist for the space solar farm project, said the concept came under scrutiny initially but after China announced ambitions to become carbon-free by 2060, attitudes towards the project have changed.