Japan Takes Lead in Wireless Power? 21stC Global Energy Supply
London, UK - 13th June 2010, 12:35 GMT
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In the footsteps of Nikola Tesla, Japan intends to send its first solar-panel-equipped satellite into space that could wirelessly beam Gigawatt-strong streams of power down to earth, each enough to power nearly 300,000 homes eco-efficiently. A Gigawatt is what a mid-size nuclear power station produces. Putting solar panels in space bypasses many of the difficulties of installing them on Earth. In orbit, there are no cloudy days, very few zoning laws, and the cold ambient temperature is ideal for causing the least amount of weathering and degradation in performance. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are leading the project. They plan to launch a small satellite fitted with solar panels in the coming few years, and test beaming the electricity from space through the ionosphere, the outermost layer of the earth's atmosphere. The full-fledged satellites will have a surface area of four square kilometres each, and transmit power via microwaves to a base station on Earth. Japan's eventual plan is to have a Space Solar Power System (SSPS), in which arrays of photovoltaic dishes several square kilometres in size would hover in geostationary orbit outside the Earth's atmosphere. The entire system is likely to be fully operational in stages in the coming two decades. The USD 21 billion Wireless Power Transmission (WPT) project has received major backing from Mitsubishi and designer IHI, in addition to research teams from 14 other countries.
Space Solar Power System (SSPS)
21st Century Innovations
Innovations enabled by Wireless Power Transmission (WPT), originally pioneered by Tesla, are likely to exert profound influence on global business and national competitiveness. The key issue with wireless power solutions is not whether humanity can deploy them; but whether we can deploy them safely and efficiently. It turns out the human body is not affected by magnetic fields; it is affected by electric fields. So what needs to be done in Wireless Power Transmission (WPT) is to transmit the energy using the magnetic field whilst minimising the electric field. Commercial opportunities from WPT include:
1. Long Range Cars: Roadway powered electric vehicles may charge electric batteries via WPT from microwave generators embedded in the roadway while a vehicle is travelling at highway speed. This eliminates stops to exchange or recharge batteries greatly extending travel range. Japan proposed wireless charging of electric motor vehicles by Microwave Power Transmission (MPT) in 2004.
2. Long Endurance Aircraft: High-altitude aircraft may be maintained at a desired location for weeks or months for communications and surveillance instead of satellites. This greatly reduces costs. The world's first Microwave Power Transmission (MPT) in the ionosphere called the MINIX -- Microwave Ionosphere Non-linear Interaction eXperiment -- was demonstrated in Japan in 1983. The world's first fuel free airplane powered by microwave energy broadcast from the ground was tested in Canada in 1987. This system is called SHARP or Stationary High-Altitude Relay Platform. In 2003, Dryden Flight Research Centre of NASA demonstrated a laser powered remote control airplane.
3. Power Relay Satellites can access remote energy sources by uncoupling primary electricity generation from terrestrial transmission lines. Power is transmitted from distant sites to geosynchronous orbits and then reflected by Power Relay Satellites to a receiver on Earth in a desired location.
4. Solar Power Satellites (SPS) in low-Earth or geosynchronous orbits or on the Moon can be utilised to supply terrestrial power demands on a global scale.
5. Intel has demonstrated the wireless powering of a 60 watt light bulb with 75% efficiency in 2008 using their Wireless Energy Resonant Link. Potential applications include the rigging of airports, offices and other buildings to supply wireless power to laptops, mobile telephones and other electronic devices added to them. Initially WPT eliminates chargers and eventually it eliminates batteries altogether.
High level response to our briefing, "Beyond Oil: Beginning of a New Era?" concludes that post the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher in 2010 and mounting public pressure, a massive restructuring of the energy industry sector may be in the offing, as profound changes on a global scale are set in motion. These changes could be a complex combination of:
1. Strict conservation measures and environmental regulations being enacted across the globe;
2. Accelerated global industrialisation hitting natural resource limits; and
3. Restricted and highly-efficient consumption of fossil fuels because of the unprecedented manifestation of severe risk to Earth's ecology.
Humanity is in need of a new power source and more efficient distribution and consumption of power. Fossil fuels are dirty, dangerous to extract and transport, and will eventually run out. Nuclear power is cleaner in production but has its own waste issues and a catastrophic failure could present a near doomsday scenario as well as spent fuel being used as a weapon. Ground based solar power can be too small scale and inefficient, but Solar Power Satellites (SPS) are ground-breaking. This is the big idea that makes large-scale unencumbered solar power work because one isn't covering the countryside with panels, or receiving intermittent power as weather changes. With WPT, 'transporting' the remote solar power becomes much more efficient making it usable virtually everywhere on Earth.
Wireless Power Transmission (WPT)
Per our original briefing, "Wireless Power: Has The Time Come?" the vision of achieving WPT on a global scale was proposed over a century ago when Nikola Tesla, the inventor of Alternating Current (AC) power generation, first started experiments with WPT. This culminated with the construction of the Wardenclyffe tower for WPT on Long Island, New York, at the start of the 20th century. Tesla's objective was to develop the technology for transmitting electricity to anywhere in the world without wires. He filed several patents describing wireless power transmitters and receivers. He was awarded the patent for wireless radio in 1940. Two basic alternatives are available for WPT: radio waves (microwaves) and light waves (lasers). Radio waves are beamed in a cloud-penetrating radio-frequency band reserved for Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) applications. Light waves are beamed in a wavelength which can be generated efficiently and easily transmitted through the atmosphere in the optical or infra-red "window".
Reducing Losses via WPT
One of the major issues in global power systems is the loss which occurs during the transmission and distribution of electrical power. As the demand increases day by day, the power generation increases and the power loss is also increased. The percentage of loss of power during transmission and distribution is approximated at 25% or much higher. The main reason for power loss during transmission and distribution is the resistance of wires used for the grid. The efficiency of power transmission can be improved to a certain extent by using high strength composite over head conductors and underground cables that use high temperature super conductors. But the transmission is still inefficient. WPT can significantly reduce the terrestrial losses by providing a highly efficient quantum jump -- near 10% pickup in efficiency -- for alternative energy power transfer and distribution. That is an important incremental step because it also allows for the extension of electricity to transportation. One could simply argue that the less fuel that is used in transportation the safer, greener, and more efficient we get. This is a positive by itself, because of the incremental nature of the gains.
USA: NASA and DoE
In the US, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Energy (DoE) have spent significant sums over three decades in not so coherent -- somewhat sporadic -- efforts to study solar generation in space, according to a 2007 report by the US National Security Space Office. The deployment of WPT was not effectively pursued until the 1960s when the US Air Force funded the development of a microwave-powered helicopter platform. A successful demonstration of a microwave beam-riding helicopter was performed in 1965. This demonstration proved that a WPT system could be constructed and that effective microwave generators and receivers could be developed for efficient conversion of microwaves into DC electricity. In 1975, a successful demonstration of microwave wireless power transmissions was performed at the NASA Deep Space Antenna facility at Goldstone, California. In this demonstration of point-to-point WPT, 30 kW of microwaves were beamed over a distance of one mile to a receiving antenna. Microwaves were converted directly into DC at an average efficiency of 82%, confounding critics who claimed that such high conversion efficiencies could not be achieved. By 1976 engineering, environmental, and economic analyses of several Solar Power Satellite (SPS) concepts had been performed by NASA. WPT systems have not been considered seriously for civilian purposes by US government agencies since 1980. However, the mood has been changing in favour of WPT in recent years. However, nascent efforts in regard to Space Solar Power (SSP) and WPT by NASA are likely to be trimmed by the recent focus on budget deficit reductions.
The demand for power on Earth is growing exponentially, and associated environmental consequences are becoming significant. Global electric power production is about a USD 1 trillion per year market currently, and represents the largest market on Earth. In this new century, Space Solar Power (SSP) may provide a clean, safe energy source, alleviating some of the problems we would otherwise expect from increasing nuclear and fossil fuel use. SSP combined with Wireless Power Transmission (WPT), offers the far-term potential to solve major energy problems on Earth. WPT is an enabling technology for utilising renewable and inexhaustible energy sources on Earth and in space to meet projected electrical energy demands in the 21st century on a global scale.
With few energy resources of its own and heavily reliant on oil imports, Japan has long been a leader in solar and other renewable energies. The current opportunities that Japan's nascent Wireless Power Transmission (WPT) industry is providing will be the basis not only for energy independence domestically from imported energy sources, but as a supplier of "clean" energy, Japan is likely to gain significant political influence and leverage globally. Penetration of this market by gradually substituting WPT to access renewable and inexhaustible energy sources anywhere on Earth and in space is an opportunity that Japan has clearly recognised. The implications of successful developments of WPT systems by the Japanese are profound enough to merit a deliberate US or European competitive decision either to pursue further coherent development of WPT or to abandon pursuit of WPT markets to other countries. The consequences of abandoning WPT may include adverse impact on Western industrial competitiveness in the 21st century and beyond. It is now obvious that:
1. Nikola Tesla and his early 20th century unique work in regard to Wireless Power generation and transmission was extremely far sighted and accurate;
2. The Japanese government and multi-nationals are committing tens of billions of dollars to the deployment of SSP and WPT because this is a lucrative area; and
3. Given the fallout from the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe, there is going to be little choice left other than to move towards SSP and WPT type solutions.
The Western nations including the US and Europe are still in a position to lead a Space Solar Power (SSP) and Wireless Power Transmission (WPT) effort but not for long. The question is not whether we harness power from Space; but rather who will get there first to garner first mover advantage with significant impact on global economic competitiveness. Now is the time to plan for the WPT future that can be discerned in broad outlines only. The inability to see the future except as a continuation of the present and not to plan for asymmetric threats and opportunities will prevent critical technological evolution and progress. Maximising the opportunities to participate in the development and applications of SSP and WPT systems would provide not only an outlet for the considerable experience and talents residing in the global aerospace and manufacturing industries, but ensure that these industries remain competitive in the markets for environmentally compatible energy sources where carbon based fuels are no longer the essential element for electrical power generation. The evolution of the human species into the cosmos, including harnessing the moon and immediate outer space, appears to provide a viable space solar and wireless power solution. There is no turning back from this final frontier in the 21st century and beyond!
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