Sustainability-in-Tech : Prototype Means Solar Farms In Space Getting Closer

Oxfordshire-based Space Solar has reported a world first with the development of a UK Prototype for space-based solar panels that could mean a constant, sustainable energy supply to the planet.

Solar Farms In Space 

Space Solar’s plan is to be able to power more than a million homes by the 2030s using a mile-wide complex of mirrors and solar panels – a solar farm – orbiting 22,000 miles above Earth.

Panels Must Rotate Towards The Sun 

For the space-based solar farm to work effectively, the panels must be able to rotate towards the sun whatever its position, while still sending power to a fixed receiver on the ground. It is this ability that has just been shown to work for the first time at Queen’s University Belfast, in a prototype that used a wireless beam “steered” across a lab to turn on a light. Space Solar has called its super-efficient design for harvesting constant sunlight CASSIOPei.

The Ultimate Form of Clean Energy 

Space Solar says that space-based solar power will be the ultimate form of clean dependable energy because it will deliver a constant, 24/7 clean source of power from space that’s unaffected by the weather, seasons, or time of day.

Other Benefits 

Some of the many other benefits of space-based solar highlighted by the company include:

– It is dispatchable, modulating the output and integrating well with intermittent wind and terrestrial solar.

– Solar panels in space capture 13 times more energy than ground-based ones due to higher light intensity and the lack of atmosphere, clouds … or night!

– It has a low environmental impact with respect to land usage, carbon footprint and mineral resources.

– The technology is very flexible, e.g. it can export energy to other co-operating nations without the need for an expensive fixed infrastructure such as underwater power cables.

– It can be switched rapidly to power green Hydrogen generation or water desalination plants, as well as providing electricity into the grid.

Challenge – 68 Space Flights 

Although the prototype has been developed successfully, there are still some major challenges ahead for Space Solar, not least the estimated 68 space flights that are likely to be needed to get the parts into orbit that could then be assembled by robots into a working space power station.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

Major challenges such as tackling global warming, decarbonising the energy sector to meet targets, keeping up with a growing electricity demand, and finding a more dependable, flexible, and sustainable source of energy have required some innovative thinking. Having solar farms in space where they can provide 24/7 clean, natural energy, therefore, sounds as though it could be one of several options with real promise.

The development of the right kind of solar panel to help achieve this should be celebrated as one important step forward in achieving Space Solar’s vision. There are, however, some arguably much bigger challenges to overcome, including getting the kit into space using almost 70 flights and getting robots to successfully put it all together whilst in orbit. Also, the target of getting it all up and running by the 2030s sounds ambitious, although it needs to be ambitious to tackle our pressing climate and energy challenges. Having a constant, dependable, clean power source beamed from space could be of huge benefit for countries and economies around the world and could help solve the issue of trying to get power to areas where the geography would have prevented this before.

Also, the fact that the technology can be used to power green Hydrogen generation or water desalination plants may also help with this global evening-up of opportunities, helping the world to tackle its main challenges much more quickly and effectively than ever before.

Sustainability-in-Tech : First 3D Metal Printer in Space

With the world’s first metal 3D printer being sent to the International Space Station (ISS), we look at what impact being able to print metal parts in space could have on space-travel plus potential environmental considerations and more.

3D Metal Printer 

Although the ISS already has several plastic 3D printers on board, the new Airbus-produced 3D metal printer, as Airbus points out, has been added because “not everything can be made from plastic” and “this logistical constraint will intensify on future Moon and Mars stations in the next few decades”. Airbus also points out that “even though the raw material still needs to be launched, printing the part is still more efficient than transporting it whole up to its final destination.” 

Will Improve Autonomy 

Looking ahead at what key benefits it will bring, as Gwenaëlle Aridon, Airbus Space Assembly lead engineer, says: “The metal 3D printer will bring new on-orbit manufacturing capabilities, including the possibility to produce load-bearing structural parts that are more resilient than a plastic equivalent. Astronauts will be able to directly manufacture tools such as wrenches or mounting interfaces that could connect several parts together. The flexibility and rapid availability of 3D printing will greatly improve astronauts’ autonomy.”   

The Moon and Beyond 

With the Moon now back on the agenda for manned visits, plans to prepare for a sustained presence there (a moon base), and with Mars missions a future possibility being able to manufacture what’s needed while in space is what makes a 3D printer an important development. As Aridon says: “Increasing the level of maturity and automation of additive manufacturing in space could be a game changer for supporting life beyond Earth,” and how “a metal printer using transformed regolith [moondust] or recycled materials” could be used “to build a lunar base!” 

Challenges 

There have been (and still are) many technological challenges to making a specialist 3D printer for use in space. For example:

– Making a 3D printer that’s small and light enough. The version in the laboratory on earth is a minimum ten square metres in size. The space version, therefore, had to be shrunk to “the size of a washing machine,” but is still able to make parts with a volume of 9 cm high and 5 cm wide.

– Safety. The 3D printer uses a laser to heat the metal. For this reason, the space version is housed in a sealed metal box.

– Gravity (or lack of it). Instead of a powder-based system (where the powder and fumes could float around and contaminate things), a wire-based system must be used for the space version of the printer.

– Whether the printer will function well in a ‘micro-gravity’ environment like the ISS. Testing this will involve comparing samples made on the space version of the 3D printer with ones made on the version in the lab on Earth.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The lessons learned and discoveries made in space exploration could deliver huge benefits to Earth’s inhabitants and could even help us tackle some of our biggest challenges including climate issues.

Being able to make space-travellers more autonomous (e.g. not having to return quickly because of limited supplies, or waiting for delivery of supplies) could enable longer, more productive missions such as setting up a base on the moon. This would also be better from an environmental and sustainability perspective – the need for fewer rocket flights. The value of the 3D metal printer is, therefore, in helping this autonomy and quality of space travel to occur, thereby moving us one small but important step forward toward the future that previous missions and science fiction had suggested.

There are, of course, also remote places on Earth (or under the sea) where the space-sized version of the metal 3D printer could be particularly useful, so it’s actually an important technological advance that offers hitherto unavailable possibilities.