Does the moon hold the secret to the source of future world energy? Martin Hickes reports.
For centuries, man has gazed at the moon in wonder.
But for some enterprising scientists, the moon has not only been a source of fascination, but the potential solution to mankind’s future energy needs.
At a time when increasing questions are being asked as to how the world might power itself safely and sustainably in the future, focus is being switched to our only natural satellite.
Both NASA, a separate group of scientists, and private business, are looking at experiments, which, if they can be developed, could account for a tremendous percentage of our global energy need.
One Japanese corporate is even researching plans to put a lunar ring in place by 2035, which would belt the moon’s equator.
Huge amounts of solar energy which hit the moon on a daily basis remain untapped, unaffected by changes in the weather and cloud cover.
And it is a percentage of this energy which scientists claim could be harnessed by solar cells or larger solar arrays – and then which remarkably, could be transmitted by microwave back to collecting stations on earth without interference from the weather.
And while it might sound like something out of Star Trek, or Space 1999, technology supplying such energy could boost thousands of watts of power to earth each year.
Ambitious plans by the Shimizu group could even see a belt of solar arrays being established on the moon collecting energy on a 24/7 basis, ready to be beamed back to the earth.
Dr David Criswell, the former director of the Institute for Space Systems Operations at the University of Houston, and a member of the Power from Space committee of the International Astronautical Federation, says:
”The surface of the moon receives 13,000 TW (terawatts) of absolutely predictable solar power. The Lunar Solar Power system we envisage could easily supply the world with 20 TWe or 330 times more than peak usage in the U.K.
“It would use 10 to 20 pairs of lunar ‘bases’ to collect in the order of 1% of the solar power reaching the lunar surface.
“The collected sunlight would be converted to many low intensity beams of microwaves and directed to special receiving antennas or ‘rectennas’ on Earth. Each ‘rectenna’ converts the microwave power to electricity that is fed into the local electric grid.
“The system could easily deliver the 20 TW or more of electric power required by 10 billion people. by say 2050.
“Adequate knowledge of the moon and practical technologies have been available since the late 1970s to collect this power and beam it to Earth.
”Unlike Earth, the surface of the moon is compatible with the construction of extremely large areas of thin solar collectors and their dependable operation over many decades. No oxygen, water, atmospheric chemicals,or life is present to attack and degrade thin solar collectors.
“No wind, rain, ice, fog, sleet, hail, driven dust, or volcanic ash will coat and mechanically degrade
”Although today energy coming directly to Earth from the sun is renewable, weather makes the supply variable.
“Studies funded by the World Energy Council project that terrestrial solar energy will provide less than 15% of the electric power needed for global prosperity by 2050.”
“With the Lunar Power system, several thousand individual rectennas strategically located around the globe, with a total area of 100,000 km2, could continuously provide the 20 TW of electric power, or 2 kW per person, required for a prosperous world of 10 billion people in 2050.
“More importantly, this new electric power would be provided without any significant use of Earth’s resources.”
NASA itself also has discussed plans for lunar power.
Its official website on the subject says:
“There may be an opportunity for lunar resources to play a role in the energy industry here on Earth.
“Power generation is a vast and growing market. Energy is a product that may legitimately be worth bringing back to the Earth's surface from the Moon.
“How will we do this? A NASA report concluded that, for the energy needs of the next century, we need to consider two alternatives enabled by a lunar outpost: solar energy collected on the lunar surface and beamed back to Earth via microwaves, (and the return to Earth of a light isotope of helium, He-3).
“Both of these options would largely avoid the biggest problems of energy generation here on Earth:. pollution, acid rain, ozone generation, carbon dioxide production with its potential for global warming, and large operations with highly radioactive fuels.
“The option for returning power to Earth, collecting solar energy on the lunar surface and beaming it back to collectors on the Earth, requires a somewhat different capability at any outpost (base).
“In this proposal, large arrays of solar cells would be manufactured and placed on the Moon. The energy they collect would be converted into microwaves and transmitted to Earth using large antennae, which would also be produced on the Moon from indigenous materials.
“Previous studies have shown that it is not feasible to launch all of the material required for such a project from Earth.
“We must ask whether we can make all the necessary items for such a large project from the resources available on the Moon.
“The products required include solar cells, wires, microwave reflectors, and metal, glass, or ceramic support structures.
“The vacuum and lower gravity present on the Moon may actually make it easier to produce many of the articles we need.
“It remains to be shown in a research and development program that large scale production of these materials and fabrication of such items can actually be carried out on the Moon, but a focused effort should accomplish many, if not all, of these goals. This "Lunar Power System" would then become largely an engineering program.
“The benefits to Earth's environment alone make these technologies worth exploring. We should remember that similar technology shifts in the past, such as the move from burning wood or coal to the use of petroleum products, took decades to evolve- this could be the next step to a benign energy source for an expanding population.”