This global warming thing

At the back of my mind has always been the thought that technology will make the whole low carbon thing entirely redundant. We\’ll move away from fossil fuels because we find something better, not because we want to stop emitting CO2.

No doubt this is the result of too much science fiction consumed as an adolescent.

Or maybe not.

Engineers plan to put satellites into orbit around the planet that can gather energy from the sun, concentrate it into powerful laser beams and transmit the energy back to the Earth where it can be used to generate electricity.

While harvesting solar energy in space has been discussed by scientists for more than 30 years, engineers at EADS Astrium, Europe\’s largest space company, now believe the technology is available to allow them to start building a working prototype.

They hope to have a small demonstrator of a full sized space-based power station, capable of beaming back 10-20kW of power, ready for launch in the next five years.

Quite why they\’re using lasers I\’m not sure:

But Astrium claims that its approach of using infrared lasers will make the system safer than other proposals which have suggested using microwaves to transmit the energy. If misdirected, microwaves could cause widespread damage, effectively cooking anything in their path.

That\’s not actually true. The concentration of energy would be too low to do that. Plus people have already tested transferring energy via microwave (they did it between two Pacific islands, fortuitously the right distance apart to mimic the depth of the atmosphere) and it works.

The real point about all of this though is that we know that it works. We\’ve the satellite technology, the transmission technology and the energy comes to Earth in a form that is easy to feed into our current grid systems. Oh, and yes, the available energy is vastly greater than the amount that civilisation already uses. By several orders of magnitude actually.

What we don\’t have and the thing that we need to have to make it all economic is a cheap way of getting into orbit. Which leads to a though. The Stern Review says we should be spending perhaps 2% of GDP to adjust for emissions and climate change. That\’s around $1 trillion a year globally.

Do I think that spending $1 trillion on researching a cheap way into space (say, a space elevator) would enable us to actually construct one? Yes, I do. And given that constructing such a cheap method of getting into space would be a total and final solution to climate change I would rather wish that we did do so actually.

10 comments on “This global warming thing

  1. From what I’ve seen and guesstimated, $1trillion isn’t going to be enough to research, develop and construct an effective space elevator.

    However, if we have several orders of magnitude of excess energy available once the system is in place, what’s the problem. Just use rockets, and recoup the energy “cost” of utilising rocket and fossil fuels later.

  2. We have a cheap way into space: Project Orion.

    Look it up.

    I am sure the Greens who have become reconciled to nuclear power won’t mind exploding 1000 or so small nuclear weapons in the atmosphere to put a few thousand tonnes of space ship into orbit.

  3. Or, indeed, spending even a fraction of that kind of money on fusion reactor research into which the UK government puts a few tens of millions a year. Fusion power within 30 years?

    Trouble is with government picking winners, of course…………… 😉

  4. Whatever energy source comes along that’s better than fossil fuels, it probably won’t be better for everything. We haven’t got round to banning the horse (and they really do have dangerous emissions) nor have we banned the use of human muscle.
    Just develop whatever energy source looks likely to be profitable.

  5. A space elevator for £1 trillion, a lovely target for some Islamist nutter, or an environmentalist nutter, or any nutter in fact to fly a plane into.

  6. You probably wont beleive this but….the R&D for a space elevator is already well underway and it wont take anything like $1trillion to do it.

    Look up the Space Elevator Games held every two years by NASA and you’ll see what happened this year. The work on climbers and the tether are both well advanced and in this years competition there were major improvements since 2007. Best guess is the materials etc will be ready in around 3-5 years. That will give us an entry level Orbital Elevator capable of outperforming all current means of launch technology without even breaking into a sweat. Of course we can then use that one to build an even bigger one if we need more carrying capacity…and so on.

    Last cost estimate I saw for building it was around $10billion (that’s right, not trillions, billions). There’s a load more on that at Liftport who’ve been punting this idea for over 10 years.

    Why waste any more money on rocketry?

  7. Is there some compelling reason to put it in space rather than in the desert? Big cost savings in many areas if we lay the panels on the desert floor rather than in orbit.

    Tim adds: Yes. 1) Efficiency, sunlight not filtered by atmosphere. 2) 24 hour operation.

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