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Green Energy in Space?

January 31, 2012

Since Green Energy generated so many great ideas, let’s pursue some of them.

Space Energy. Could space be the place for energy?  Space Solar Power Systems is a project being developed by Japan. The system will collect sunlight in geostationary orbit, then microwave it down to Earth, providing 1 gigawatt of electricity, comparable to a nuclear power plant. “The biggest challenge is to reduce the overall cost of construction.”

But how formidable an obstacle are one-time construction costs? When society really wants to accomplish a goal (like enriching Halliburton in a desert war) they come up with the money.

Even if space solar works, it’s not a final answer because we still end up beaming more energy to Earth than Earth can dissipate. So how about:

Space Factories. President Carter’s NASA thought we could do it, and a British factory thinks we still can. Maybe these factories can be self-replicating, like living organisms. They could use a microbial soup to grow living sources of materials and provide some energy.

Let’s assume we can spend the energy to get these into space. What next?

Robot technology is a must. Do we yet have robots that can troubleshoot the system in space? If not, how far off are they?

Finally, the least popular option:

Conservation. Will large-scale conservation make a difference, or will we just find more ways to spend energy? Will conservation help us survive until space energy is attainable?

12 Comments
  1. January 31, 2012 9:57 pm

    Self replicating tools on a satellite are going to be resource-constrained, but energy rich. Gathering feedstock is tough in open space

    Now on the moon, that’s another story. Sending a little solar factory that can make more solar factories near the south pole where you can mine for ice sounds like an excellent idea. Make enough bots, start using some of them to dig up ice, separate into O2 and H2 for later use.

    • busy bee permalink
      February 2, 2012 6:26 pm

      “Gathering feedstock is tough in open space”
      If you need a lot of feedstock you could build a big rail gun to shoot lumps of feedstock into space, much more efficiently than a rocket can get up there with things that are supposed to still be functional after launch.
      But you wouldn’t necessarily need much feedstock. Structures for which the constraint is that they need to support their own weight can get by with very little feedstock if you build them where they’re weightless.

      • February 2, 2012 8:22 pm

        Rail gun sounds fascinating. Do you mean like the one in Moon is a Harsh Mistress? Is there any serious venture on this yet?

        • paws4thot permalink
          February 3, 2012 5:09 am

          Sort of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railgun discusses the history of railguns as artillary and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maglev discusses the use of the same principles for making high speed railways.

        • busy bee permalink
          February 3, 2012 5:29 pm

          On the moon, without atmosphere, with lower escape velocity, and without a good local source of rocket fuel, a rail gun or electromagnetic catapult makes more sense than on earth. I prefer to think of it as a gun, because the acceleration at launch would be quite destructive for the payload, and (as the Heinlein story points out) the deceleration at the receiving end risks being destructive for the recipient.
          Aside from military rail guns, I’d be surprised if there are any serious ventures. And none of the military rail guns or hypervelocity guns I’ve heard of even comes close to escape velocity, to be honest. But I think this idea is much closer to being feasible than building autonomous robotic space factories, so I don’t think it’s necessary to assume we couldn’t get those factories the feedstock they need.

  2. January 31, 2012 11:56 pm

    I tend to think ecologically, so I figure that the biggest untapped energy resource is conservaton. Therefore (for those who love logic), that’s where most of the development will go. This is analogous to why bank robbers rob banks. That’s where the money is concentrated.

    Space is currently most useful for monitoring and communications, which are multibillion dollar industries already. Hopefully we’ll keep those going.

  3. February 1, 2012 9:50 pm

    If the moon is a good idea, how much would it take for us to ship factory components there?
    I like the idea of a little solar factory that can make more solar factories. Is any company seriously trying this?

  4. paws4thot permalink
    February 2, 2012 6:27 am

    Yeah, I find myself thinking that the first thing we need is solar-powered von Neumann machines with power switches. After that, we need to make them able to fab “useful stuff” out of Seleneolith (is that a word? Does it mean Moon rocks and dust if so?)

    For “on Earth” stuff, conservation in 3 parts:-
    1) Insulation so we don’t need to generate power just to heat rooms up.
    2) Reuse “waste heat” from process plant as pre-heaters, heating rooms…
    3) Reuse, rebuild, recycle stuff.

  5. February 2, 2012 6:15 pm

    Good thing to reuse right now is old 1970s alternative energy books. I got one from my public library’s book sale for $2.00, and it’s full of useful passive solar advice.

  6. February 3, 2012 9:31 am

    Some of the best solar ideas are in Dune. The dew collectors–in Israel they actually use these on rooftops. In the Sahara it’s possible to hydrate yourself indefinitely with water collected from a couple square meters of dark plastic. (Solar distillation)

  7. February 4, 2012 1:09 pm

    That SSPS article is full of ponies … “establishing an efficient low-cost way of transporting the system into space, unmanned robot technology for assembling the system in outer space, technology for controlling beams, reducing energy losses in power conversion,”

    By the time you have all those figured out you probably don’t need the solar power plant. For the same price you can most likely build 1000 of those plants in Sahara (and boy, would it be easier to repair those)

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