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New energies 23/06/2020

Space As A Resource For Eco-Friendly Initiatives

As the renewables industry continues to gain traction, new potential resources and cleaner methods of working are continually being discovered: from artificial jellyfish capturing carbon to innovative ways of harnessing sunlight to create energy for humans.

There’s one area of cutting-edge energy innovation that is particularly far out: space. Of course, tapping into outer space for terrestrial activities is nothing new: Satellites have been monitoring weather patterns and connecting to the internet for decades.

But now scientists are busy developing products and methods beyond our atmosphere that can be integral to a clean energy future. Here are two exciting examples of green, space-based initiatives. 

Photovoltaics In Space

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory has recently taken an ambitious step towards generating solar energy from space by launching a photovoltaic device outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. While NASA has been researching photovoltaics in space since the 1970s, this latest launch is a rare project able to yield tangible results:  

  • Known as the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module, the new device is a 12-inch square panel that can convert solar rays into radio frequency microwaves. Travelling on the U.S. Air Force’s Boeing X-37 spacecraft, the module will test the energy conversion process and provide key information for future attempts to exploit space’s PV energy.
  • Catching sunlight in space is particularly advantageous as the rays we receive on Earth have travelled through our atmosphere, which both filters light and reduces its energy.   
  • The U.S. isn’t the only country looking to capitalize on PV in space: Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency plans to build enough orbital solar power stations to generate 1GW by 2030, while China has announced its goal to be the first nation to send solar power from space to Earth.  

ENGIE Eye

Another new development that turns to space for eco-friendly purposes is “skycooling,” a field ENGIE has been studying for the past two years. It’s a zero-carbon process used to cool objects and spaces by sending heat from Earth beyond the outer reaches of our atmosphere. Andrew Harbord of ENGIE’s Strategic Innovation and Disruption Department explains: “The principal of what we’re doing is really about cooling things down, hopefully eventually replacing current air conditioning in hospitals and offices, as well as industrial refrigeration.” Here are more details:

  • Radiative skycooling is, above all, a natural phenomenon. At night, forests and deserts alike emit the day’s heat through thermal infrared radiation, which bypasses the atmosphere and is released into cold space.
  • ENGIE has figured out how to replicate this process, which requires very little electricity, so it can be applied during daylight hours as an eco-friendly method of refrigeration. Water is used to transfer heat to a radiant panel that sends the heat into the atmosphere and, in doing so, creates a cooling effect.   
  • Harbord and his colleagues are currently working with partner companies to map out what skycooling solutions ENGIE will offer to its customers. “The research and development phase is now behind us,” says Harbord. “Now, we’re analyzing the technical and financial aspects with case studies in both the commercial sector and industrial sectors. We’re working internally with mostly CRIGEN (ENGIE’s R&D lab) and ENGIE solutions.”
  • ENGIE’s work on skycooling could have a big impact on cooling processes in the future. As Harbord states, “To our knowledge, there aren’t any other industrial skycooling projects. ENGIE is ahead of the game.”


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