China wants to build an orbital station to produce solar energy in space

China wants to build an orbital station to produce solar energy in space

The government will finance the experimental project to build a solar power plant in orbit and reduce polluting emissions from terrestrial coal-fired plants

(image: Getty Images) In the film The Wandering Earth to escape the sun, which has become a red giant , the Earth is equipped with powerful nuclear engines that block its rotation and push it out of the solar system. Unlike in the most expensive made in China science fiction film in history (from a story by the famous writer Liu Cixin), in reality Beijing wants to try to exploit the Sun to help achieve a historic goal announced by President Xi Jinping: zero emissions. (carbon neutrality) by 2060. In particular, it tries to do so with the construction of a space solar power plant that the government plans should be completed by 2030.

The project, on which a team of researchers and engineers from the Chinese Space Academy works , provides for the use of an orbital station as a central for the production of solar energy. Through a potentially revolutionary technology, the station, according to the plans, should be able to collect solar energy and send it to Earth in the form of microwave rays. And it could do it 365 days a year, regardless of weather conditions. So much so that the city chosen for the experiments is the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, famous for its more than frequent fog. The orbital plant would have a power of 1 megawatt but by 2049, the centenary of the People's Republic of China, the aim is to raise it up to 1 gigawatt.

The test

The infrastructures necessary for the trials will be completed by the end of the year and will be located in the Bishan district in an area of ​​about twenty thousand square meters within which entry will not be allowed except for the scientists involved in the tests. Ignition errors and radiation are potential risks, so much so that a research team from Beijing Jiaotong University who suggested imposing a residence ban within a five-kilometer radius when the ground-based receiving station goes into operation to receive incoming solar energy. from the orbital power plant.

Chinese researchers will have to prove that solar energy transfer can indeed work over long distances. In the first tests they managed to receive the energy emitted by a hot air balloon positioned at a height of 300 meters at a precise point. The next planned step is to collect and receive solar energy over twenty kilometers high through an airship.

Being able to one day build a solar power plant in orbit is an old dream of scientists, as a normal terrestrial plant operates only for a limited period of the day during daylight hours and depending on atmospheric conditions. Not to mention that the atmosphere reflects or absorbs about half of the energy coming from the sun. Problems that can be circumvented by the construction of a power plant in orbit, which could remain exposed to sunlight 24 hours a day throughout the year. According to estimates, with the system tested by Chinese engineers, the percentage of energy lost in the atmosphere would drop dramatically to about 2%.

Beijing's environmental objectives

The project had already been talked about in 2018, but everything was blocked for about three years due to doubts about costs but above all about its feasibility and the safety of the technology used. The funds and support needed to carry out the tests only unlocked last June, following repeated announcements by the Chinese government on the need to achieve carbon neutrality within 40 years. And a very intense time schedule was immediately set.

It is not the only case, China is launching several environmental projects. For example, it plans to plant 33 million hectares of forest over the next five years. The goal is to increase the forest cover rate to 24.1% and that of grassy vegetation to 57% by 2025, as required by the 14th five-year plan. This would essentially be a doubling of the Chinese forest cover in the space of 40 years, given that in the 1980s the percentage was 12%.

Unfortunately, the polluting emissions of the Dragon continue to increase. Coal consumption actually decreased between 2014 and 2016 but then started to rise again. The government has given the green light to build new 36.9 gigawatts of coal-fired electrical capacity. And further plans for coal-fired power plants are pending. Experimental projects such as the solar space plant are what Beijing needs to try to cut emissions. But there are also those who suspect that a project like the one being tested in Chongqing could also contribute to the development of new weapons such as hypersonic missiles. On the other hand, the US military is also showing a growing interest in solar technology.

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