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Scientists make revolutionary breakthrough in quest to extract solar energy from space: 'No one has ever [done this]'

"We can send energy to remote regions and areas devastated by war or natural disaster."

Space Solar Power Project

Photo Credit: iStock

Solar power is quite possibly the energy source of the future, and in the field's most futuristic breakthrough yet, scientists have just figured out how to beam solar power from outer space to Earth for the first time.

The advantages of beaming solar power from space instead of simply collecting it with solar panels here on Earth, the way we currently do, are vast. On Earth, solar energy can be harvested only when the sun is shining, i.e., during the daytime and when there aren't too many clouds. In some places, that renders solar panels fairly ineffective. 

In space, however, the sun is always shining. That means that space-based solar harvesters can collect eight times more power than solar panels anywhere on Earth, Space.com reports.

The process of beaming solar power from space was technical, complicated, and involved many acronyms. The California Institute of Technology's (Caltech) Space Solar Power Project (SSPP) launched a device called the Space Solar Power Demonstrator (SSPD-1), which carried an instrument known as the Microwave Array for Power-transfer Low-orbit Experiment (MAPLE) into space.

It was MAPLE that was ultimately responsible for wirelessly transmitting solar energy back to Earth, where it was received by two separate receiver arrays, which then lit up a pair of LEDs (light-emitting diodes), rendering the experiment a success.

"To the best of our knowledge, no one has ever demonstrated wireless energy transfer in space, even with expensive rigid structures," co-director of the Space-Based Solar Power Project, Ali Hajimiri, said in a statement. "We are doing it with flexible, lightweight structures and with our own integrated circuits. This is a first."

Hajimiri and his team hope that their technology can be further developed to provide solar energy to parts of the world that are currently underserved by energy infrastructure.

"In the same way that the internet democratized access to information, we hope that wireless energy transfer democratizes access to energy," he said. "No energy transmission infrastructure will be needed on the ground to receive this power. That means we can send energy to remote regions and areas devastated by war or natural disaster."

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