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Using Cellular Membranes to Capture Solar Energy in Space

Solar power in space is an exciting idea, but not a new one; in fact we have covered it on previous articles here at Oilprice.com. Here we will look at the efforts of a team of engineers from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

Solar energy is an almost perfect source of renewable energy, and can provide cheap abundant electricity to the world. The main problems that arise with solar energy are: that the photovoltaic cells/concentrated solar energy tower cannot benefit from the sun’s rays for the whole day; The power produced by the solar array is also intermittent for the fact that clouds and other weather patterns can reduce the solar energy that hits them; and finally, that the regions of the world which are most suited for solar installations, such as the Sahara desert, are not necessarily near to where the electricity is needed, which raises issues of transport.

The researchers at Strathclyde hope that their system will remove all of those problems by placing the solar cells outside of the earth’s atmosphere, and therefore free from its weather systems and its rotation (the solar cells will never experience night); and, by using microwaves, or lasers, to send the energy down to the earth, the required electricity could theoretically be received anywhere on earth.

Leading the research team is Dr Massimiliano Vasile, from the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He said that “space provides a fantastic source for collecting solar power and we have the advantage of being able to gather it regardless of the time of the day or indeed the weather conditions.”

“In areas like the Sahara desert where quality solar power can be captured, it becomes very difficult to transport this energy to areas where it can be used. However, our research is focusing on how we can remove this obstacle and use space-based solar power to target difficult to reach areas.”

“By using either microwaves or lasers we would be able to beam the energy back down to earth, directly to specific areas. This would provide a reliable, quality source of energy and would remove the need for storing energy coming from renewable sources on ground as it would provide a constant delivery of solar energy.”

“Initially, smaller satellites will be able to generate enough energy for a small village but we have the aim, and indeed the technology available, to one day put a large enough structure in space that could gather energy that would be capable of powering a large city.”

In April the team launched their first attempt, known as Suaineadh, into the edges of space from the Arctic Circle; an important step in the process of constructing larger structures. The current project is called Self-Inflating Adaptable Membrane (SAM) and will test the method by which the solar energy can be collected. It will consist of a cellular membrane that self inflates in a vacuum and can then be controlled via nanopumps to change volume and shape.

“The structure replicates the natural cellular structure that exists in all living things. The independent control of the cells would allow us to morph the structure into a solar concentrator to collect the sunlight and project it on solar arrays. The same structure can be used to build large space systems by assembling thousands of small individual units,” said Dr. Vasile.

By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com

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