China testing tech that beams solar power from space

Solar panels on the ground aren’t extremely efficient at generating power – it only works in the day without cloudy conditions, and much of the energy from the sun is dispersed and lost through the atmosphere. The answer? Put the solar panels in space. Chinese researchers have successfully tested technology that could one day wirelessly transmit solar power from outer space to Earth.

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Xidian University in the Shaanxi province of China have built a model power station that captures sunlight high above the ground that is then converted into microwaves. It then transmits through the air to a receiver station on the ground, where it can be converted back to electricity.

The current model only operates over 50m above the ground, but the test confirms this technology can work to send this power from solar panels orbiting in space. Distance is not a barrier for the technology to work, according to the research team, so sending the microwave beams from space will still work well.

Putting this technology in space will mean the panels can operate 24 hours a day, able to avoid the shadow of Earth as the planet orbits around the Sun.

The same technology is being tested in the US by researchers at the California Institute of Technology. It launched a solar space programme in 2013 with a $100 million grant received to conduct this research, but it seems China will get there first.

Researchers in India, Russia, the UK and France are also exploring possibilities, and Japan is particularly advanced in the field, according to Xidian. While individual components of solar-from-space technology have been tested before, the Chinese researchers are the first to successfully test a full-system model, Xidian said.

If this technology turns out to be a viable option, expect private space faring companies to grow significantly as countries invest to deliver 100 percent renewable energy to their people.