The Future of Space: A Space Elevator by 2050?

space_elevatorIn the ongoing effort to ensure humanity has a future offworld, it seems that another major company has thrown its hat into the ring. This time, its the Japanese construction giant Obayashi that’s declared its interest in building a Space Elevator, a feat which it plans to have it up and running by the year 2050. If successful, it would make space travel easier and more accessible, and revolutionize the world economy.

This is just the latest proposal to build an elevator in the coming decades, using both existing and emerging technology. Obayashi’s plan calls for a tether that will reach 96,000 kilometers into space, with robotic cars powered by magnetic linear motors that will carry people and cargo to a newly-built space station. The estimated travel time will take 7 days, and will cost a fraction of what it currently takes to bring people to the ISS using rockets.

space_elevator_liftThe company said the fantasy can now become a reality because of the development of carbon nanotechnology. As Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, explained:

The tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it’s possible. Right now we can’t make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-centimetre-long nanotubes but we need much more… we think by 2030 we’ll be able to do it.

Once considered the realm of science fiction, the concept is fast becoming a possibility. A major international study in 2012 concluded the space elevator was feasible, but best achieved with international co-operation. Since that time, Universities all over Japan have been working on the engineering problems, and every year they hold competitions to share their suggestions and learn from each other.

space_elevator3Experts have claimed the space elevator could signal the end of Earth-based rockets which are hugely expensive and dangerous. Compared to space shuttles, which cost about $22,000 per kilogram to take cargo into space, the Space Elevator can do it for around $200. It’s also believed that having one operational could help solve the world’s power problems by delivering huge amounts of solar power. It would also be a boon for space tourism.

Constructing the Space Elevator would allow small rockets to be housed and launched from stations in space without the need for massive amounts of fuel required to break the Earth’s gravitational pull. Obayashi is working on cars that will carry 30 people up the elevator, so it may not be too long before the Moon is the next must-see tourist destination. They are joined by a team at Kanagawa University that have been working on robotic cars or climbers.

graphene_ribbonsAnd one of the greatest issues – the development of a tether that can withstand the weight and tension of stresses of reaching into orbit – may be closer to being solved than previously thought. While the development of carbon nanotubes has certainly been a shot in the arm for those contemplating the space elevator’s tether, this material is not quite strong enough to do the job itself.

Luckily, a team working out of Penn State University have created something that just might. Led by chemistry professor John Badding, the team has created a “diamond nanothread” – a thread composed of carbon atoms that measures one-twenty-thousands the diameter of a single strand of human hair, and which may prove to be the strongest man-made material in the universe.

diamond_nanothreadAt the heart of the thread is a never-before-seen structure resembling the hexagonal rings of bonded carbon atoms that make up diamonds, the hardest known mineral in existence. That makes these nanothreads potentially stronger and more resilient than the most advanced carbon nanotubes, which are similar super-durable and super-light structures composed of rolled up, one atom-thick sheets of carbon called graphene.

Graphene and carbon nanotubes are already ushering in stunning advancements in the fields of electronics, energy storage and even medicine. This new discovery of diamond nanothreads, if they prove to be stronger than existing materials, could accelerate this process even further and revolutionize the development of electronics vehicles, batteries, touchscreens, solar cells, and nanocomposities.

space_elevator2But by far the most ambitious possibility offered is that of a durable cable that could send humans to space without the need of rockets. As John Badding said in a statement:

One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a ‘space elevator’ which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea,

At this juncture, and given the immense cost and international commitment required to built it, 2050 seems like a reasonable estimate for creating a Space Elevator. However, other groups hope to see this goal become a reality sooner. The  International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) for example, thinks one could be built by 2035 using existing technology. And several assessments indicate that a Lunar Elevator would be far more feasible in the meantime.

Come what may, it is clear that the future of space exploration will require us to think bigger and bolder if we’re going to secure our future as a “space-faring” race. And be sure to check out these videos from Penn State and the Obayashi Corp:

John Badding and the Nanodiamond Thread:


Obayashi and the 2050 Space Elevator:


Sources:
cnet.com
, abc.net.au, science.psu.edu

Powered by the Sun: Nanotech Solar Cells

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????With every passing year, interest in solar power has been growing by leaps and bounds. Given the impacts of Climate Change, widespread droughts, tropical storms, wildfires and increasing global temperatures, this should not come as a surprise. But an equally important factor in the adoption of clean energy alternatives has to do with improvements that are being made which will make it more efficient, accessible, and appealing to power companies and consumers.

Three such recent developments come to us from Standford, MIT, and the Neils Bohr Institute, respectively; where researchers have announced new ways using nanoprocesses to boost the yield of individual solar cells. In addition to cutting costs associated with production, installation, and storage, increasing the overall electrical yield of solar cells is a major step towards their full-scale implementation.

solar_nanoFirst, there’s MIT’s new concept for a solar cell, which uses nanowires to massively boost the efficiency of quantum dot photovoltaic cells. Quantum dots – which are basically nano-sized crystals of a semiconducting material – are already being considered as an alternative to conventional silicon cells, since they are cheaper and easier to produce.

However, until recently they have been a letdown in the efficiency department, lagging significantly behind their silicon counterparts. By merging zinc oxide nanowires into the design of their quantum dot photovoltaic cells, the MIT researchers were able to boost the current produced by 50%, and overall efficiency by 5%.  Ultimately, their goal is to get that up to 10%, since that is considered to be the threshold for commercial adoption.

gallium-arsenide-nanowire-solar-cellMeanwhile, researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark and EPFL in Switzerland announced that they have built solar cells out of single nanowires. In this case, the process involved growing gallium-arsenide (GaAs) wires on a silicon substrate, and then completing the circuit with a transparent indium tin oxide electrode, which are currently employed in the creation of photovoltaic cells and LEDs on the market today.

Prior to these development, nanowires were being researched mainly in conjunction with computer chips as a possible replacement for silicon. But thanks to the combined work of these researchers, we may very well be looking at solar cells which are not only hair-thin (as with the kind being developed by Penn State University) but microscopically thin. And much like the research at the University of Oslo involving the use of microbeads, this too will mean the creation of ultra-thin solar cells that have a massive energy density – 180 mA/cm2, versus ~40 mA/cm2 for crystalline silicon PVs.

solar_boosterAnd last, but not least, there was the announcement from Stanford University of a revolutionary new type of solar cell that has doubled the efficiency of traditional photovoltaic cells. This new device uses a process called photon-enhanced thermionic emission (PETE) that allows for the absorption of not only light, but heat. This combination makes this new type of cell the equivalent of a turbocharged solar panel!

pete-photovoltaic-thermionic-diagram-stanfordIn conventional cells, photons strike a semiconductor (usually silicon), creating electricity by knocking electrons loose from their parent atoms. The PETE process, on the other hand, uses the gallium arsenide wafer on top gather as much sunlight as possible, creating a lot of excited electrons using the photovoltaic effect. The underside, which is composed of nanoantennae, emits these photoexcited electrons across a vacuum to the anode with gathers them and turns them into an electrical current.

Beneath the anode is a of heat pipe that collects any leftover heat which could be used elsewhere. One of the easiest applications of PETE would be in concentrating solar power plants, where thousands of mirrors concentrate light on a central vat of boiling water, which drives a steam turbine. By concentrating the light on PETE devices instead, Stanford estimates that their power output could increase by 50%, bringing the cost of solar power generation down into the range of fossil fuels.

Though there are still kinks in their design – the cell has a very low 2% rate of energy efficient thus far – the researchers at Stanford are making improvements which are increasing its efficiency exponentially. And although their planned upgrades should lead to a solar cell capable of operating in extremely hot environments, they stress that the goal here is to build one that is capable of gathering power in non-desert environments, such as Spaced-Based solar arrays.

Combined with improved production methods, storage capacities, and plans to mount solar arrays in a variety of new places (such as on artificial islands), we could be looking at the wholesale adoption of solar power within a few years time. Every day, it seems, new methods are being unveiled that will allow Solar to supplant fossil fuels as the best, cheapest and most efficient means of energy production. If all goes as planned, all this could be coming just in time to save the planet, fingers crossed!

Sources: Extremetech.com, (2)

Powered by the Sun: Solar Powered Clothing

solar1Imagine threads that would turn the wearer into a walking power source. That’s the concept behind a new type of fiber-optic solar cell developed by John Badding of Penn State University. Announced back in December of 2012, this development could very well lead to the creation of full-body solar cells that you wear, providing you with an ample amount of renewable electricity that you could could carry with you everywhere you go.

Similar in appearance to most fiber-optic cables made from flexible glass fibers, these new solar cells are thinner than the average human hair and could conceivably be woven into clothing. Whereas you conventional solar cell exists only in two-dimensions and can only absorb energy when facing the sun, this 3D cross-section of silicon infused fiber are capable of absorbing light from any direction.

flexible-solar-cell-625x418Already, John Badding and his research team have received interest from the United States military about creating clothing that can act as a wearable power source for soldiers while they’re in the field. In addition, like peel and stick solar panels, we can expect commercial applications for satchels, like the kind used to house laptops. Forget the power cable, now you can charge your battery pack just by setting it in the sun.

And given the upsurge in wearable tattoos and implantable medical devices, these fibers could also prove useful in clothing to ensure a steady supply of power that they could draw from. Hell, I can picture “solar shirts” that have a special recharging pocket where you can place your MP3 player, smartphone, tablet, or any other electronic device once the battery runs down.

Solar-Panels-625x418Naturally, all of this is still in the research and development stage of things. John Badding and his team have yet to aggregate the single strands into a piece of woven material, meaning it is still speculative as to whether or not they will be able to withstand the stress faced by regular clothing without breaking down. Nevertheless, the material is still a significant advancement for solar energy, with the new cells presenting many possibilities for remote energy use and accessibility.

And I for one am still excited about the emergence of fabric that generates electricity. Not only is it a surefire and sophisticated way of reducing our carbon footprint, it’s science fiction gold!

Source: psfk.com