In a forward-thinking step towards sustainable energy, Japan has charted a bold course for a future of sustainable energy. The nation’s ambitious plan? Transferring solar power from outer space to Earth by 2025, breathing new life into the increasingly prevalent solar power trend.
Solar power has evolved from its beginnings in space missions and remote areas with no alternative power sources. Gradually, it gained traction, albeit with considerable subsidies, and has since become a mainstream, cost-effective energy source. Interestingly, Japan’s new project takes this technology back to its origins—space.
This unconventional strategy addresses a perennial limitation of solar power: its reliance on unobstructed sunlight. When the sun is blocked—at night due to Earth’s rotation or during cloudy days due to weather conditions, or even by dust or haze—the effectiveness of solar power decreases. To tackle this issue, Japan is seeking a celestial solution—a location eternally bathed in sunlight: space.
The Japanese government and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have been mulling over this galactic gambit. The sun’s abundant energy is readily available in space, but the challenges lies in transmitting the harvested energy back to Earth.
Sending transmissions lines into space isn’t practical. The proposed solution involves transmitting microwaves—which can penetrate clouds and are immune to weather conditions—from space to Earth. Ground-based receivers would then capture these microwaves, converting them back into electrical energy.
The concept of beaming energy from space isn’t entirely new; it was first proposed in 1968, with both the United States and China conducting research but failing to actualize the idea.
Professor Naoki Shinohara of Kyoto University has been leading this project since 2009. In a significant advancement, JAXA successfully transmitted 1.8 kW of power over 50m using microwaves in 2015, laying the technical groundwork for space-based solar power. Japan plans to take this a step further by launching a series of small satellites equipped with solar cell panels into orbit. These satellites will attempt to transmit the generated power back to an array on Earth.
However, the road to solar power is fraught with challenges. Despite the sun’s constant availability in space, the cost of launching and installing solar panels and microwave transmitters into orbit is exorbitantly high. A device with a mere 1 GW capacity might set back investors by a staggering USD 7 billion.
Future cost reduction and scale-up initiatives will need to consider safety aspects as well. There could be potential risks such as an aircraft intercepting a microwave beam, or the possible ecological impact on wildlife. However, as the current experiments are small-scale, these concerns are not immediate. Ultimately, Japan’s plans to harness solar power from space signal an innovate step towards energy sustainability, while also highlighting the challenges to be tackled in this venture.
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