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Unlimited Clean Energy From Solar Winds

October 29th, 2016 | Posted by pftq in Ideas | #
It turns out there's enough energy right at the edge of our atmosphere to power the entire planet for free.  The energy comes in the form of charged particles from the sun called solar wind, which is much more energy rich than what makes it past the Earth's magnetic field to our ground-based solar panels.  It is what you see responsible for phenomena like the northern lights (aurora borealis).  Our atmosphere shields us from harmful radiation, likewise reducing a lot of this to just the sunlight you feel on Earth, but if you go outside the atmosphere, it is practically unlimited energy, free for the taking.  This could be collected through a sail, kite, or even just a regular conductor (at the ionosphere just before space, it's pretty close to actual electricity) with no worries of pollution or detriment to the environment.  What I'm surprised about is there hasn't been more interest to reach it, as it seems like such a land grab.

The main problem I read about is the practicality of transporting the energy back to Earth, as much of it can be lost if you try to just beam it or conduct it through a massively long wire.  If we go further out than near space to collect from the solar wind directly, that problem becomes even larger; the distance grows from perhaps just 50 miles to now on the order of thousands of miles.  It seems to me a silly problem though if you really are able to collect that much energy; surely you can spare just a tiny bit of that energy to power whatever it takes to bring the load back to Earth.  According to some articles such as phys.org, every 200 sqft of collection could power a thousand homes, which is more than enough for a city or two if you just send roughly a closet-sized sail into space.  If you stay at near-space to collect the ionized form instead of going all the way into space itself, the collection area can be smaller as it is closer to just raw electricity that you can tap into.  What probably wasn't in consideration before was the means of storing the energy at large enough capacity and transporting the energy in loads, rather than trying to shoot it back to Earth.  What's exciting to me though is that it seems Elon Musk might have similar ideas here with his almost perfectly arranged trio of companies focused on space (SpaceX), battery efficiency (Tesla), and solar energy (SolarCity - not solar wind collection but close enough); you could almost see Musk one day deciding to merge SpaceX and Tesla as well to then build spaceships and space stations powered directly by the sun without ever having to refuel.  The storage and transportation problem almost seems like it'll solve itself over time as clean energy technology gets better on Earth.

An interesting proof of concept might be to set up a weather balloon or lightning rocket to first tap into the charged particles concentrated at near space and send it back to a lightning rod or tower back on the ground.  It's not the full utilization of all the energy up there, but it's still a massive amount of energy that would be useful to power a city or two, especially if it's free.  It's also fun to imagine a city with a super long kite in the sky causing man-made lightning to continuously strike the center to keep it powered.  Perhaps one day we can figure out how to generate lightning without the trailing wire.

What would be a more interesting idea to me though is actually going all out with a massive sail in actual space to mimic what the atmosphere does to convert it into electricity and then really collect enough energy to power the entire Earth.  You can probably hear the protesters already complaining about blocking our view of the sun or other interference.  One way to deal with the issues of having something so massive in the sky might be to have the sail trail slightly behind the Earth in its orbit around the sun.  That way it never actually is between the sun and the Earth to block anything.  It would also solve the issue of only receiving sunlight half the day.  It's probably not as practical due to literally needing some way to keep it pulled, but it's fun to imagine the Earth doing its usual orbit around the sun but with a giant solar kite tugged behind it.  Then again, if we're talking about having that much energy collected, surely we can spare some of that to keep the structure propelling itself behind Earth.

A more reasonable idea may be to actually have several of these massive structures stationed at various points in Earth's orbit around the sun.  What you end up with are essentially stations that the Earth passes by several times a year, perhaps every season, and as you pass close by, it becomes opportune to essentially "harvest" the energy from that station.  The Earth itself almost becomes like a train that circles around the sun with stations to "refuel" at.  And again, to all the concerns about having enough fuel to power the spaceships between the harvesting stations and Earth, we're talking about enough energy to power the entire Earth everyday.  The bigger issue again is probably figuring out how to build a high enough capacity battery.  Perhaps there is merit in those sci-fi movies where the entire city exists in space rather than on the planet (so no transportation of energy is needed in the first place).

My personal favorite is still to just have my own city powered by constant lightning strikes from a kite in the sky. Smiley

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