With more than a third of the days marred by fog all year round, the city of Chongqing in southwest China is not the ideal location for a solar power plant. But soon, it will have the country’s first experimental facility to test groundbreaking technology that enables China to send and receive a powerful beam of energy from space in about a decade, according to scientists involved in the project.
Harvesting energy from the sun and transmitting it to Earth using massive orbiting infrastructure has been considered science fiction, but according to a Chinese government plan, the nation will set up a solar power station of 1 megawatt in space by 2030.
And by 2049, when the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 100th anniversary, the total electrical capacity of the plant (s) will increase to 1 gigawatt, the equivalent of today’s largest nuclear reactor.
After inaugurating Heping Village, Bishan District three years ago, the construction of the 100 million yuan (US $ 15.4 million or RM 65.40 million) ground test facility for the national space solar power program has come to a halt, in part because of debates over the cost, feasibility and safety of the technology.
The project resumed in June, according to the district government website.
Zhong Yuanchang, professor of electrical engineering involved in the project with Chongqing University, was quoted in the Beijing-based newspaper Chinese science daily Monday, saying construction of the facility would be completed by the end of this year, on a tight deadline.
An intense beam of energy should effectively penetrate the cloud and strike a ground station directly and precisely. Researchers at the Bishan facility will work on these and other projects.
A solar power plant is not efficient because it only operates during the day and the atmosphere reflects or absorbs almost half of the energy of sunlight.
Since the 1960s, some scientists and space engineers have been drawn to the idea of a solar station in space. From an altitude of 36,000 km (22,400 miles) or higher, a geostationary solar power plant can avoid the Earth’s shadow and see the sun 24 hours a day.
The loss of energy to the atmosphere could also be minimized (around 2%) by sending the energy in the form of high frequency microwaves.
In recent decades, various forms of solar power plants have been proposed around the world but they have remained theoretical due to major technical challenges.
In Bishan, Chinese researchers first had to prove that wireless energy transfer worked over a long distance.
Although engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla popularized the idea in the late 19th century, the technology has been limited to a small number of short-range applications, such as the wireless charger for smartphones.
Tesla failed in part because he made electricity travel through the air like waves in all directions. To increase the effective range, energy must be concentrated in a highly focused beam.
Chinese researchers received wireless energy emitted from a balloon 300 meters (980 feet) above the ground. When the Bishan installation is complete, they plan to increase the range to more than 20 km with an airship collecting solar energy from the stratosphere, according to the Chinese science daily.
In Bishan, researchers will also experiment with some alternative applications of the technology, such as using the energy beam to power drones.
The main experimental area will be 2 hectares (4.9 acres) and surrounded by a clearance area five times the size. Local residents are not allowed to enter the buffer zone for their own safety, according to the district government.
The risk to the safety of a space solar power plant is not negligible, according to some recent studies in China.
When the huge solar panels turn to chase the sun, for example, they could produce weak but persistent vibrations in the microwave cannon that could cause a misfire. The “space farm” would therefore need an extremely sophisticated flight control system to maintain its objective at a tiny point on Earth.
Another danger would be radiation. According to a calculation made last year by a research team from Beijing’s Jiaotong University, residents could not live within 5 km of the ground receiving station of China’s 1 GW solar power plant in China. space.
Even a train more than 10 km away might encounter problems such as sudden loss of communication as the frequency of the microwave on power would affect the WiFi.
In an article posted on the Chinese Academy of Sciences website in May, Professor Ge Changchun, senior scientist at the National Space Solar Power Plant Program, said the project had met with much opposition.
But after the government announced its goal of being carbon neutral by 2060, it received strong support from the energy sector, he said.
Most new sources of energy, such as solar and wind power, are not stable. With other options, such as still technically uncertain nuclear fusion technology, a space solar power system “will be a major strategic choice,” Ge wrote.
If China didn’t, the United States and other Western countries would, he added.
There is no civilian solar space station program in the United States at this time. But in recent years, the US military has shown increasing interest in the technology.
The US Air Force, for example, plans to send satellites in two or three years to test key technology for transmitting energy to Earth. The energy would be used to power drones or distant military posts.
The potential applications of the technology extend beyond power supply for military uses. The energy beam could target a moving threat, such as hypersonic missiles and planes, or cause an entire city to crash, some defense contractors say.
The Chongqing research team could not be reached for comment. According to freely available information, the Bishan test site will be a dual-use facility for military and civilian researchers.
Despite controversies, space solar power technology plays an important role in China’s space development plan, as it will spur the development of a wide range of advanced technologies, including superheavy rocket, hypersonic space plane for low-cost transportation, building massive orbital infrastructure and directed energy weapons, some Chinese space scientists briefed on the program say.
China currently lags the United States in space technology, but the program will put China ahead of the curve, they said. – South China morning post