The US military is ranked number 55 out of the world’s largest carbon polluters (2019). According to Forbes Magazine, the DOD has emitted more than 1.2 GtC (billion metric tons of carbon) since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The military is the largest fossil fuel energy consumer in the US, and is the single biggest buyer of crude oil on the planet. But all of these missteps are about to change.
Although, seven military bases have already transitioned to solar, military outposts around the globe are often in remote locations without easy access to electricity. Constructing large solar arrays for these facilities, isn’t feasible. But, sticking with petroleum isn’t the solution either.
The military has been in search of an energy source that has limited infrastructure that it can tap into from any of its far-flung locations around the world. Enter the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) that appears to have the solution. A set of satellite-mounted solar arrays that harnesses energy on orbit and transmits it back to Earth. Just the type of innovation John Doerr advocates in Speed & Scale, An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now.
I loved hearing from people who had far out ideas and plans for catching lightning in a bottle.Eric Toone, Executive Managing Director and Science Lead, Breakthrough Energy Ventures — Speed & Scale
This innovative concept is referred to as SSPIDR, Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research. It will be manufactured by military contractor Northrup Grumman with tests projected to begin as soon as 2024, and an on-orbit demonstration by 2025.
- captures carbon from sun
- converts to radio frequency (RF) on orbit
- transmits back to Earth
- once on land, converts to rectenna (rectifying antenna)
Northrup Grumman received an award of $100 million to apply to the conversion of solar-to-RF. But that’s not the only contractor involved. Other companies will create the deployable space structures, and lightweight high-efficiency solar cells, etc.
The concern that has the engineers scrambling, is the weight. Everything will have to be miniaturized to keep the weight and bulk down. The entire structure will have to be condensed into a launch payload.
According to Defense News, SSPIDR communications officer Rachel Delaney said that AFRL’s goal is to produce 1,000kW of power from the SSPIDR structures, which per the Naval Research Laboratory is sufficient to run a forward operating base. SSPIDR needs to increase the surface area of the solar arrays, and boost the efficiency of the solar cells, to produce the amount of power engineers are looking for.
Space Solar Power (SSP), as a sustainable energy alternative, has been on the minds of sc-fi enthusiasts for decades. According to Cosmos, The Science of Everything, first mention of such an evocative solution was in Isaac Asimov’s 1941 work, “Reason,” in which two robots, Powell and Donovan, transmit energy to various planets through microwave beams. With access to the sun 24/7, and orbiting above the intense hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other extreme weather events on the horizon, space solar will be significantly advantageous.
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