As far-fetched as it may seem, space-based solar electricity production may become a reality if a California high school student’s vision of installing a self-replicating solar power factory on the moon is realised.
Justin Lewis-Weber, a senior at Viewpoint School, California, believes terrestrial solar energy cannot work on a planetary scale. The sun isn’t always reliable, weather affects power output, and electricity demand peaks at times when solar production is usually at its lowest point, forcing utilities to resort to coal and gas to ensure supply.
Lewis-Weber’s concept, published in the journal New Space, uses existing ideas of space solar power (SSP), whereby giant solar satellites constructed from thousands of PV panels, reflectors and antennae sit in orbit, beaming uninterrupted energy from the sun back to Earth via microwaves.
Rather than building and launching these massive and shockingly expensive arrays here on Earth, Lewis-Weber proposes a self-replicating system (SRS) that would produce SSP components on the moon, using materials mined from the lunar surface.
A small launch package containing around 18 species of self-replicating machines, each assigned a specific role in building solar power satellites (SPSs), along with a moon-based launch platform (known as a Mass Driver), could feasibly be launched for around USD $10 billion, according to Lewis-Weber.
“In essence, if an SRS that is capable of reproducing itself and producing SPS’s on the lunar surface was created, the entire Earth could be powered for contextually minimal cost,” says Mr. Lewis-Weber
“Because only a small and (in context) lightweight package will need to be sent and manufactured, the entire system is essentially free, and because all power produced can be sold at a profit, there is very little exposure (in the context of space missions and energy production investments) for practically unlimited upside.”
The biggest challenge to Lewis-Weber’s dream is the SRS – the machine that can reproduce an exact copy of itself using the materials in its environment. The idea has parallels to biomimicry, and to date, no such machine exists. But Lewis-Weber believes it can be achieved with concentrated engineering.
And the pay-off would be worth it: his proposed SSP system would deliver a levelised cost of energy (LCOE) of $0.00042 per kilowatt-hour – around two orders of magnitude below that of fossil fuels.