In May 2007, this column described the only known workable fusion technology suited for electric power generation, championed by Dr. Robert Bussard (who died only five months after that article appeared). Ignoring his work, the Department of Energy has spent outrageous sums ($21 billion to date) on failed Tokomak research. Meanwhile, the Green movement – overwhelmingly anti-nuclear since its origins – has for decades promoted solar energy for electricity generation, even though solar is far from contributing to base-load power, warranting traditional utility investment.

Breakthroughs in one solar technology – Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) – are moving it into “feasible” status thanks to an inexpensive space payload launcher, component miniaturization and self-deployment packaging. If Washington can avoid poisoning SBSP implementation and rebalance an energy-investment asymmetry that spends 265 times more on Tokomaks than on SBSP, we may see an economically viable alternative to nuclear energy. How nice for large electric-power users like you who read this journal.

While dating back to Dr. Peter Glaser’s 1968 proposal, SBSP new status was launched in 2007 by the DoD’s National Security Space Office. Noting that energy and environmental security are critical challenges for the entire world, the DoD’s “Dreamworks” office asked whether the U.S. and its partners could enable (via private-sector commercialization) the development and deployment of an SBSP system by 2050 to provide affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable and expandable energy for consumers. The National Security Space Office’s (NSSO’s) final report (Oct. 10, 2007) found SBSP not only feasible but also uniquely suited to the DoD’s needs for on-demand electrical power at forward bases and remote expeditionary sites. More so, SBSP can meet virtually all the world’s civil and industrial electric-power needs.

SBSP works by placing large solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays in continuously and intensely sunlit orbits, converting collected energy to radio frequency or laser energy and beaming it to rectifying antennas on Earth. While the sun radiates 2.3 billion times more energy than what strikes Earth, the latter being more energy in an hour than humanity uses in a year, most Greens don’t realize that the Earth’s atmosphere attenuates the 1,366 watts per square meter (WSM) registered in orbit to only 53 WSM on the ground (assuming no clouds). Given ground-based PV conversion efficiencies of 4-6% when factoring in panel losses, installation losses, shadowing and clouds, terrestrial solar cells capture and convert 2.65 WSM for half of each 24-hour day. To be utility-grade power, terrestrial solar collectors require high-density energy storage media to feed the distribution grid.

By contrast, an SBSP collector in geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) can tap full solar flux nonstop. But its four-decade Achilles heel was cited in the NSSO’s study – the $5,000-10,000 per pound cost of launching SBSP collector arrays, solar-to-electrical/optical converters and large Earth-facing power-beaming antennas to low Earth orbit (LEO) for subsequent transfer to GEO (~24,000 miles out).

The launch breakthrough needed is emerging. The Slingatron mechanical mass accelerator from Dr. Derek Tidman holds promise to reduce launch costs two orders of magnitude. Configured as a multi-turn spiral (tubular) coil gyrated by electrically driven arms, the coil’s gyrations accelerate a cargo projectile of 500-1,000 pounds inside the coil. (It’s like gyrating a frying pan with a ball bearing rolling around its inner edge.) The projectile exits at 4-5 kilometers per second and reaches apogee, where powerful, miniature rocket thrusters push the projectile into LEO.

Payloads include large inflatable solar arrays, rigidize-in-place trusses and power-beam antenna. Very high launch rates are feasible. Once in LEO, the arrays deploy and self-cluster, then use solar-electric propulsion to propel themselves to GEO for self-assembly.

These SBSP “technology ensembles” are being defined for demonstration by John Bosma (another friend for many decades), who sees advances in inflatable, rigidize-in-place materials, print-on PV cells, miniature rockets and collective self-assembly of subsystems to reduce or even eliminate the complex and expensive need for conventional rocket lift to LEO and GEO. All system elements exist; many were “orphan technologies” for decades.

The industrial and entire world electrical-energy consumption is headed toward what is described here, not the politically driven and emotionally convoluted world of Greens who have little understanding. I hope that this summary gives readers a glimpse into a potentially exciting future. IH

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