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China starts testing tech to harvest solar energy from orbiting panels

Ground facility to be finished this year as early trials focus on balloons just 300m away

A Chinese ground-based facility for converting solar energy bounced to Earth is scheduled for completion by the end of 2021 and has already conducted energy transfer tests up to 300-meter altitudes, a key project member told state-run media China Science Daily.

The project member, Zhong Yuanchang, is a professor at Chongqing University's School of Microelectronics and Communication Engineering. The power plant, called the Bishan Space Solar Power Station Experimental Base, or Bishan Base, is located in the Bishan district, about a 45-minute drive from the university. The base has a checkered past - it was conceptualized in 2010, but has started and stopped since as political and financial pressures intervened. As of June, the project is decidedly on.

The Earth-based station is designed to collect solar energy wirelessly from solar panel power stations in orbit. Solar power collected in space has the advantage of being unaffected by weather or that pesky thing called "night".

Bishan base is slated to be China’s first large-scale power station facility for testing, integrating observing and cultivating this new way of harnessing power. But for now, the researchers are building a small-scale test power station for use in 2030, and to do that, the team must test transmissions from low altitudes, before moving on to two km altitudes using ultra-high voltage power transmissions, before finally transmitting wirelessly from orbit. By 2050, China has dreams of a full on gigawatt-scale commercial space solar power station.

Zhong told China Science Daily that for now, the research team is using high-altitude balloons as a floating platform to carry out the 300 m altitude microwave power transmission tests.

The concept of solar panels beaming wireless power back to Earth is not new. In 1941 Isaac Asimov described such technology in his science fiction short story Reason and in the early 1970s Peter Glaser received a patent for a design to transmit power from satellites to Earth using microwaves.

NASA has explored the concept several times, and Japan's space agency (JAXA) began developing a space solar power system in 1998 that is still running.

The US Naval Research Laboratory has ongoing tests and labs exploring the technology, and Caltech is having a stab at it using the funds of a recently revealed anonymous billionaire's donation.

The UK Space Energy Initiative has also commissioned research and private British company International Electric is promising to eventually beam power straight down to static and mobile devices using its phased array, CASSIOPeiA.

But for now in China, clean solar energy anytime day or night might have to wait for the Chongqing University, Zhong, and the testing balloon to take new heights.®

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