'Fly me to the moon' for clean, reliable electricity

October 07, 2002

The key to a prosperous world is clean, safe, low-cost electrical energy, according to University of Houston physicist David Criswell. And his idea for how to get it is literally out of this world.

For more than 20 years, Criswell has been formulating the plans and the justification for building bases on the moon to collect solar energy and beam it through space for use by electricity-hungry Earthlings.

Criswell will talk about lunar solar power systems at the World Space Congress 2002 in Houston Oct. 10-19.

"Prosperity for everyone on Earth requires a sustainable source of electricity," Criswell says. The World Energy Council, a global multi-energy organization that promotes the sustainable supply and use of energy for the greatest benefit of all, agrees. The WEC's primary message is that affordable modern energy services for everyone -including the two billion people who have no access to commercial energy - are a key to sustainable development and peace throughout the world. See http://www.worldenergy.org/wec-geis/publications/default/stat2002.asp for details.

Criswell estimates that by the year 2050, a prosperous population of 10 billion would require about 20 terawatts of power, or about three to five times the amount of commercial power currently produced.

The moon receives more than 13,000 terawatts of solar power, and harnessing just one percent could satisfy Earth's power needs, he says. The challenge is to build a commercial system that can extract a tiny portion of the immense solar power available and deliver the energy to consumers on earth at a reasonable price.

"A priority for me is getting people to realize that the lunar power system may be the only option for sustainable global prosperity," Criswell says. He contributed a chapter to a new book, Innovative Solutions for CO2 Stabilization, published in July, which addresses major aspects of sustainability and global commercial power. See http://uk.cambridge.org/engineering/catalogue/0521807255/.

Criswell's lunar-based system to supply solar power to Earth is based on building large banks of solar cells on the moon to collect sunlight and send it back to receivers on Earth via a microwave beam. Solar cells are electronic devices that gather sunlight and convert it into usable electricity. The microwave energy collected on Earth is then converted to electricity that can be fed into the local electric grid.

Such a system could easily supply the 20 terawatts or more of electricity required by 10 billion people, Criswell says. The system is environmentally friendly, safe to humans, and reliable since it is not affected by clouds or rain, either on the Earth or the moon, which essentially has no weather.

The moon continuously receives sunlight, except once a year for about three hours during a full lunar eclipse, when stored energy could be used to maintain power on Earth, Criswell adds.

The system could be built on the moon from lunar materials and operated on the moon and Earth using existing technologies, he says, which would greatly reducing the cost of the operation. He estimates that a lunar solar power system could begin delivering commercial power about 10 years after program start-up.

Technology under development at UH increases the options for successfully building a lunar power base. UH researchers at the Texas Center for Superconductivity and Advanced Materials (TcSAM) are developing nanotechnology techniques that could transform the lunar soil into solar cells.

"The raw materials needed to make solar cells are present in the moon's regolith," says Alex Freundlich, research professor of physics, who has examined lunar material to determine whether it contains the necessary ingredients for making solar cells. He, research scientist Charles Horton, Alex Ignatiev, director of TcSAM, and a team of NASA-JSC and industry scientists also have used "simulated" moon soil to determine how to go about manufacturing the solar cell devices on the moon.

"Our plan is to use an autonomous lunar rover to move across the moon's surface, to melt the regolith into a very thin film of glass and then to deposit thin film solar cells on that lunar glass substrate. An array of such lunar solar cells could then be used as a giant solar energy converter generating electricity," Freundlich says.

Criswell, who has a Ph.D. in physics from Rice University, began thinking about lunar-based power systems more than 20 years ago when he was an administrator at the Lunar Science Institute, now the Lunar and Planetary Institute. For about seven years at the institute, Criswell was responsible for reviewing nearly 3,400 NASA proposals for lunar science projects.

"I really got to know the peer-review process and I learned about all aspects of lunar science," he says. For the past 10 years, Criswell has been director of UH's Institute for Space Systems Operations, which receives funding from the state for space-related research projects conducted by faculty and students at UH and UH-Clear Lake in conjunction with NASA- Johnson Space Center. See http://isso.uh.edu.
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