Shape the Future

4 new ways to solve the energy challenge

January 5, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

3. Creating electricity in space

The idea of beaming solar power down to Earth from space was popularized in a 1941 Isaac Asimov short story in which the machinery was controlled by a robot called Cutie. Today, solar space stations still sound far-fetched, but scientists in the U.S. and Japan are pursuing modern versions of the system, which are becoming more feasible as space flight and solar panels promise to become more affordable.

How would it work? The panels would orbit in space -- immune from rain, clouds, and nighttime --gathering solar energy 24/7. The panels would be 43 times more efficient than land-based ones, says Col. M.V. "Coyote" Smith, who has studied the concept for NASA. The satellites would then beam the energy to Earth in the form of microwave radiation. Implausible? John Mankins, the former head of advanced concept studies at NASA, has conducted successful tests in Hawaii, sending wireless electricity between two islands.

The hang-up is cost. Building a big space solar operation would cost billions, Mankins says. While a couple of universities are working on it, skeptics abound. "If a potential investor sat down and penciled out the costs, they would stop returning your phone calls," says Seth Masia, editor of Solar Today magazine. Still, new projects like Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen's aircraft, which one day could affordably launch satellites, and the fact that solar panels are getting cheaper, are making this technology suddenly seem more science than fiction. --A.V.

NEXT: 4. Tapping fuel from the ocean floor


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