Forget about silicon-based solar cells or other improvements in the solar energy area: researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow have something better for us in store: space-harvested sunlight. That solves the issue of energy intermittence in solar power, since the satellites would see the Sun all the time and send the energy they collect to Earth base stations.
The researchers conducted an experiment they called Suaineadh (Scots Gaelic for “twisting”) on a rocket which took off from the Arctic Circle to the edge of space. As you can see, this was no ordinary experiment, since it marked a big achievement in space construction design – it proved that a light-weight spinning web would be strong enough to hold larger structures.
The breakthrough gave the scientists wings to take on a new project called SAM (Self-inflating Adaptable Membrane). This involves sending ultra-light solar cells which make up a self-inflating structure in space (as the name suggests) and use nanopumps to change their volume independently, so the structure itself takes on new shapes in vacuum all the time.
The cells are not doing anything special: they actually imitate the structure of any living thing; the structure they represent will be transformed into a solar concentrator, whose role is to harvest sunlight and direct it onto solar arrays. From there on, scientists still have to decide whether to use microwaves or lasers to transmit the energy back to the specific areas on Earth. Just think about it: this might prove so efficient that it could one day make ground sources of renewable energy obsolete!
For the moment, the scientists plan to make baby steps with this new “toy”: smaller satellites will be used to provide electricity for a small village, but their ambition is to work on the existing technology as to have an entire city hooked to sunlight from space. This is actually an international ambition, that gathers under its umbrella a consortium of American, Japanese and European researchers, led by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC).