Is solar wind power the future of renewable energy?
In this blog, Freddy Brocklehurst, an environmental consultant at Groundsure, discusses sources of alternative energy, with a particular focus on solar wind power. If you have any questions about this blog, you can contact the commercial consultancy team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the world’s energy needs inevitably grow, we must become less reliant on fossil fuels and strive to find sources of alternative energy. Solar, geothermal, tidal and wind power are some of the more common sources of alternative energy. However, another source of alternative energy has caught the attention of fusion researchers, which reportedly has the potential to meet the world’s energy needs 100 billion times over. This potential energy generating power house is solar wind power. (2)(3)(4)
What is solar wind and how can we harness it?
Solar wind is streams of hot and fast magnetised gas from the sun’s upper atmosphere. It is comprised of hydrogen and helium ions along with some other heavier elements. It’s similar to the steam from a boiling kettle, however, solar wind does not behave exactly the same. Normal steam would rise quickly and slow down as it cools, but as solar wind leaves the Sun it accelerates, tripling in speed through the aura of plasma that surrounds the Sun, also known as the corona. Furthermore, as the solar wind moves into cold space something inside it continues to add heat. This ‘something’ has long been seen as a mystery, until recent data posited ion cyclotron waves as the source (see (2) for more information).
Solar wind does not act like you would expect wind to on Earth. Instead of using wind turbines, it would have to be collected using a gigantic sail which would be deployed in space, between the Sun and the Earth. (3)
The solar wind sail would function by pointing a 4 inch wide copper wire, which is attached to the sail, at the Sun. This would then create a magnetic field that captures electrons found in solar wind, which would then be funnelled to a spherical receiver, producing a current. This current would then have to be transferred to collector stations on either satellites, the moon or Earth via a powerful infrared laser beam. A network of satellites which transfer the energy to collectors on Earth would be the most cost effective way of harnessing the energy as opposed to setting up a station on the moon. (1)
However, even though there are huge potential gains to be had from solar wind, there are also still some rather large obstacles that would have to be overcome in order for this to become a reality. Below are the potential advantages and disadvantages of solar wind:
- We already possess the technology to build the satellites as they would be made up mostly of copper and are relatively easy to construct. (6)
- They have the potential to produce 100 billion times as much power as the Earth currently needs. (1)
- It could be set up on a small scale. A 1cm wide copper wire which is 300m long, a receiver 2m wide and sail 10 metres wide could generate 1.7 megawatts of power, enough to power around 1000 homes. (6)
- The biggest obstacle to overcome is how to get the power back to earth. A laser beam would be the best solution, however there would be millions of miles between the satellite and Earth meaning that the beam would widen and lose energy. (3)
- In order to harness the full potential of the solar wind, the solar sail would have to be 8,400-kilometres (5,220 miles) wide, which would be hard to achieve. (1)
- It will rely on constant solar wind, which would mean the satellite would have to be situated tens of millions of miles from Earth. (6)
Whilst we currently have the technology to build the solar sail, the real problem lies in how to get the energy back down to Earth efficiently. If we can harness this energy then it will effectively mean we no longer need to be reliant on fossil fuels, which will in turn help to slow down climate change and ultimately reduce the destruction of our planet's ecosystems. However, until we have the complete technology to efficiently capture solar wind then we will just have to make do with other forms of renewable energy. (4)(6)(5)
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- Singh, T. (2012)Solar winds could provide 100 Billion times earth’s energy needs. Available at: http://inhabitat.com/solar-wind-energy-could-provide-100-billion-times-earths-energy-needs/
- Solar Wind(2013) Available at: https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2013/08mar_solarwind Phys
- (2010)Could solar wind power earth? Available at: http://phys.org/news/2010-10-solar-power-earth.html Camarena, J.
- (2015)Solar wind: A possible alternative. Available at: http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2015/ph240/camarena1/ Conil, J.
- (2006)Solar wind power: Generating power in the future. Available at: http://www.alternative-energy-news.info/solar-wind-power/ choi, charles
- (2010)Out-of-this-world proposal for solar wind power. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19497-out-of-this-world-proposal-for-solar-wind-power/#.VLT_J9KsXDo