News From Space: Luna Rings and Spidersuits!

space_cameraSpace is becoming a very interesting place, thanks to numerous innovations that are looking ahead to the next great leap in exploration. With the Moon and Mars firmly fixed as the intended targets for future manned missions, everything from proposed settlements and construction projects are being plotted, and the requisite tools are being fashioned.

For instance, the Shimizu Corporation (the designers of the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid), a Japanese construction firm, has proposed a radical idea for bringing solar energy to the world. Taking the concept of space-based solar power a step further, Shimizu has proposed the creation of a “Luna Ring” – an array of solar cells around the Moon’s 11000 km (6800 mile) equator to harvest solar energy and beam it back to Earth.

lunaringThe plan involves using materials derived from lunar soil itself, and then using them to build an array that will measure some 400 km (250 miles) thick. Since the Moon’s equator receives a steady amount of exposure to the Sun, the photovoltaic ring would be able to generate a continuous amount of electricity, which it would then beam down to Earth from the near side of the Moon.

It’s an ambitious idea that calls for assembling machinery transported from Earth and using tele-operated robots to do the actual construction on the Moon’s surface, once it all arrives. The project would involve multiple phases, to be spread out over a period of about thirty years, and which relies on multiple strategies to make it happen.

lunaring-1For example, the firm claims that water – a necessary prerequisite for construction – could be produced by reducing lunar soil with hydrogen imported from Earth. The company also proposes extracting local regolith to fashion “lunar concrete”, and utilizing solar-heat treatment processes to fashion it into bricks, ceramics, and glass fibers.

The remotely-controlled robots would also be responsible for other construction tasks, such as excavating the surrounding landscape, leveling the ground, laying out solar panel-studded concrete, and laying embedded cables that would run from the ring to a series of transmission stations located on the Earth-facing side of the Moon.

space-based-solarpowerPower could be beamed to the Earth through microwave power transmission antennas, about 20 m (65 ft) in diameter, and a series of high density lasers, both of which would be guided by radio beacons. Microwave power receiving antennas on Earth, located offshore or in areas with little cloud cover, could convert the received microwave power into DC electricity and send it to where it was needed.

The company claims that it’s system could beam up to 13,000 terawatts of power around-the-clock, which is roughly two-thirds of what is used by the world on average per year. With such an array looming in space, and a few satellites circling the planet to pick up the slack, Earth’s energy needs could be met for the foreseable future, and all without a single drop of oil or brick of coal.

The proposed timeline has actual construction beginning as soon as 2035.

biosuitAnd naturally, when manned missions are again mounted into space, the crews will need the proper equipment to live, thrive and survive. And since much of the space suit technology is several decades old, space agencies and private companies are partnering to find new and innovative gear with which to equip the men and women who will brave the dangers of space and planetary exploration.

Consider the Biosuit, which is a prime example of a next-generation technology designed to tackle the challenges of manned missions to Mars. Created by Dava Newman, an MIT aerospace engineering professor, this Spiderman-like suit is a sleeker, lighter alternative to the standard EVA suits that weigh approximately 135 kilograms (300 pounds).

biosuit_dava_newmanFor over a decade now, Newman has been working on a suit that is specifically designed for Mars exploration. At this year’s TEDWomen event in San Francisco, she showcased her concept and demonstrated how its ergonomic design will allow astronauts to explore the difficult terrain of the Red Planet without tripping over the bulk they carry with the current EVA suits.

The reason the suit is sleek is because it’s pressurized close to the skin, which is possible thanks to tension lines in the suit. These are coincidentally what give it it’s Spiderman-like appearance, contributing to its aesthetic appeal as well. These lines are specifically designed to flex as the astronauts ends their arms or knees, thus replacing hard panels with soft, tensile fabric.

biosuit1Active materials, such as nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter. This is especially important, in that it gets closer Newman to her goal of designing a suit that can contain 30% of the atmosphere’s pressure – the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.

Another benefit of the BioSuit is its resiliency. If it gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a new type of space-grade Ace Bandage. And perhaps most importantly, traditional suits can only be fitted to people 5′ 5″ and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program. The BioSuit, on the other hand, can be built for smaller people, making things more inclusive in the future.

Mars_simulationNewman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . Thanks to evidence that showcases the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system, the technology behind the Biosuit could be used to increase athletic performance or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. As Newman herself put it:

We’ll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it. But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better.

With proper funding, Newman believes she could complete the suit design in two to three years. It would be a boon to NASA, as it appears to be significantly cheaper to make than traditional spacesuits. Funding isn’t in place yet, but Newman still hopeful that the BioSuit will be ready for the first human mission to Mars, which are slated for sometime in 2030.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of the TEDWomen talk featuring Newman and her Biosuit demonstration:

Sources: gizmag, fastcoexist, blog.ted

Powered by the Sun: Sun-Made Hydrogen Fuel

solar2It’s been known for some time that our future may hinge on the successful development of solar power. Despite it being a clean, renewable alternative to traditional, dirtier methods, the costs associated with it have remained prohibitive.  Which is why, in recent years, researchers and developers have been working to make it more efficient and bring down the costs of producing and installing panels.

But a new technique developed by the University of Colorado Boulder may have just upped the ante on solar-powered clean energy. Using concentrated sunlight in a solar tower to achieve temperatures high enough to drive chemical reactions that split water into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen molecules, the team claims that solar energy may now be used to cheaply produce massive amounts of hydrogen fuel.

hydrogenfuelThe team’s solar thermal system concentrates sunlight off a vast array of mirrors into a single point at the top of a tall tower to produce very high temperatures. When this heat is delivered into a reactor full of metal oxides, the oxides heat up and release oxygen. This leaves the reduced metal oxides in a different state and ready to bind with new oxygen atoms.

Steam is then introduced into the reactor, which can also be produced by heating water with sunlight. This vaporized water then interacts with oxides, which draw oxygen atoms out of the water molecules leaving behind hydrogen molecules. These molecules can then be collected and harvested as hydrogen gas, and placed in storage containers for export.

solar_beadsGranted, the concept of using solar energy and heat to create hydrogen fuel is not new. Earlier this year, teams from the University of Delaware and Harvard already proposed using solar arrays and small panels (artificial leaves) to separate hydrogen from water. And solar thermal tower power plants have been in use in some parts of the world for years now.

But there are several key difference that set the University team’s concept apart. In a standard solar power tower, sunlight is concentrated about 500 to 800 times to reach temperatures around 500º C (932 º F) to produce steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. However, splitting water requires temperatures of around 1,350º C (2,500º F), which is hot enough to melt steel.

hydrogenfuel-2To get those kinds of temperatures, the team added additional mirrors within the tower to further concentrate the sunlight onto the reactor and the active material. But the big breakthrough came about when the team discovered certain active materials that allowed both these chemical reactions (reducing the metal oxide and re-oxidizing it with steam) to occur at the same temperature.

As Charles Musgrave, Professor of Chemical and Biological engineering at CU-Boulder, explains it:

You need this high temperature both to give you the driving force to drive the chemical reactions and also the kinetics to make the reactions go fast enough to make the process practical. We determined that both reactions could be driven at the same temperature of about 2,500° F (1,371° C). Even though we run at a constant and lower temperature we still generate more hydrogen than competing processes.

Though they have yet to produce a working model, the concept has a big advantage over other methods. By eliminating the time and energy required for temperature swings, more hydrogen fuel can be created in any given amount of time. Another advantage it has over other renewable technologies, such as wind and photovoltaics, is that it uses sunlight directly to produce fuel rather first converting sunlight into electricity, which reduces overall efficiency.

solar_array1The team believes that a site with five 223 m (732 ft) tall towers and about two million sq m (21.5 million sq ft) of heliostats on 485 ha (1,200 acres) of land could generate 100,000 kg (222,460 lb) of hydrogen per day, which is enough to run over 5,000 hydrogen-fuel cell buses daily. Or as Alan Weimer, the research group leader, put it:

Our objective is to produce hydrogen (H2) at $2/kg H2. This is equivalent to about US$2/gallon (3.7 L) of gasoline based on mileage in a fuel cell car versus a combustion engine today.

Not a bad substitute for gasoline then, is it? And considering that the production process relies on only the sun – once the multi-million dollar infrastructure has been built of course – it will be much more cost effective for power companies than offshore drilling, frakking and pipelines currently are. Add to that the fact that its far more environmentally friendly, and you’ve an all around winning alternative to modern day fuels.

Source: gizmag.com

Powered by the Sun: The Artificial Leaf

solar_power1Despite progress made in recent decades, solar power still has some obstacles to overcome before it can be completely adopted. Thanks to several innovations, the price of manufacturing and installing solar panels has dropped substantially, intermittency remains a problem. So long as solar power remains limited by both geography and weather, we can expect to remain limited in terms of use.

And short of building Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) arrays, or producing super-capacitor batteries with graphene – both of which are being explored – the only other option is to find ways to turn solar power into other forms of usable fuel. When the sun isn’t shining, people will need something else to power their homes, appliances, heating and AC. And given that the point is to reduce pollution, it will also have to be clean.

??????And that’s precisely what Daniel Nocera and his team are doing over at the University of Harvard. Their “artificial leaf” – a piece of silicon (solar cell) coated with two catalysts – is a means of turning sunshine into hydrogen fuel. Basically, when sunlight shines in, the leaf splits the water into bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen on each side, which can then be used in a fuel cell.

Efforts in the past to build similar solar cells have faltered, due largely to the costs involved. However, with the price of solar-related materials dropping in recent years, this latest device may prove commercially viable. And built to a larger scale, the device could provide a super-cheap and storable energy source from which could then be piped off and used in a fuel cell to make electricity. And combined with arrays of solar panels, we could have the energy crisis licked!

artificial-leafNocera and his team first announced the technology back in 2011, back when he was still a chemist at MIT. Since that time, they have published a follow-up paper showing how the team has improved the leaf’s efficiency, laying out future challenges, and how these might be overcome. Foremost amongst these are a field trial, with the eventual aim of building a commercial device for the developing world.

Beyond that, Nocera hopes to commercialize the technology through his company, the Massachusetts-based Sun Catalytix. Once realized, he plans to to put his dream of giving the poor “their first 100 watts of energy” into action. Here’s hoping he succeeds. The poor need power, and the environment needs a break from all our polluting!

Thank you all for reading the latest installment of PBTS! And be sure to check out this video of the artificial leaf in action:

Powered by the Sun: The Future of Solar Energy

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31Researchers continue to work steadily to make the dream of abundant solar energy a reality. And in recent years, a number of ideas and projects have begun to bear fruit. Earlier this year, their was the announcement of a new kind of “peel and stick” solar panel which was quite impressive. Little did I know, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Since that time, I have come across four very interesting stories that talk about the future of solar power, and I feel the need to share them all! But, not wanting to fill your page with a massive post, I’ve decided to break them down and do a week long segment dedicated to emerging solar technology and its wicked-cool applications. So welcome to the first installment of Powered By The Sun!

spaceX_solararrayThe first story comes to us by way of SpaceX, Deep Space Industries, and other commercial space agencies that are looking to make space-based solar power (SBSP) a reality. For those not familiar with the concept, this involves placing a solar farm in orbit that would then harvest energy from the sun and then beam the resulting electricity back to Earth using microwave- or laser-based wireless power transmission.

Originally described by Isaac Asimov in his short story “Reason”, the concept of an actual space-based solar array was first adopted by NASA in 1974. Since that time, they have been investigating the concept alongside the US Department of Energy as a solution to the problem of meeting Earth’s energy demands, and the cost of establishing a reliable network of arrays here on Earth.

Constructing large arrays on the surface is a prohibitively expensive and inefficient way of gathering power, due largely to weather patterns, seasons, and the day-night cycle which would interfere with reliable solar collection. What’s more, the sunniest parts of the world are quite far from the major centers of demand – i.e. Western Europe, North America, India and East Asia – and at the present time, transmitting energy over that long a distance is virtually impossible.

NASA "Suntower" concept
NASA “Suntower” concept

Compared to that, an orbiting installation like the SBSP would have numerous advantages. Orbiting outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, it would be able to receive about 30% more power from the Sun, would be operational for almost 24 hours per day, and if placed directly above the equator, it wouldn’t be affected by the seasons either. But the biggest benefit of all would be the ability to beam the power directly to whoever needed it.

But of course, cost remains an issue, which is the only reason why NASA hasn’t undertaken to do this already. Over the years, many concepts have been considered over at NASA and other space agencies. But due to the high cost of putting anything in orbit, moving up all the materials required to build a large scale installation was simply not cost effective.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424However, that is all set to change. Companies like SpaceX, who have already taken part in commercial space flight (such as the first commercial resupply to the ISS in May of 2012, picture above) are working on finding ways to lower the cost of putting materials and supplies into orbit. Currently, it costs about $20,000 to place a kilogram (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). But SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, has said that he wants to bring the price down to $500 per pound, at which point, things become much more feasible.

And when that happens, there will be no shortage of clients looking to put an SBSP array into orbit. In the wake of the Fukushima accident, the Japanese government announced plans to launch a two-kilometer-wide 1-gigawatt SBSP plant into space. The Russian Space Agency already has a a working 100-kilowatt SBSP prototype, but has not yet announced a launch date. And China, the Earth’s fastest-growing consumer of electricity, plans to put a 100kW SBSP into Low-Earth Orbit by 2025.

space-based-solarpowerMost notably, however, is John Mankins, the CTO of Deep Space Industries and a 25-year NASA vet, who has produced an updated report on the viability of SBSP. His conclusion, in short, is that it should be possible to build a small-scale, pilot solar farm dubbed SPS-ALPHA for $5 billion and a large-scale, multi-kilometer wide power plant for $20 billion. NASA’s funding for SPS-ALPHA dried up last year, but presumably Mankins’ work continues at Deep Space Industries.

Cost and the long-term hazards of having an array in space remain, but considering its long-term importance and the shot in the arm space exploration has received in recent years – i.e. the Curiosity Rover, the proposed L2 Moon outpost, manned missions to Mars by 2030 – we could be looking at the full-scale construction of orbital power plants sometime early in the next decade.

And it won’t be a moment too soon! Considering Earth’s growing population, its escalating impact on the surface, the limits of many proposed alternative fuels, and the fact that we are nowhere near to resolving the problem of Climate Change, space-based solar power may be just what the doctor ordered!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next installment in the Powered By The Sun series!

Source: Extremetech.com