Has the World Finally Caught Up with Isaac Asimov's Vision?

Solar SatelliteI vivid­ly remem­ber meet­ing Isaac Asi­mov when I was a teenag­er. My father had man­aged to get him as a speak­er at the col­lege he was teach­ing, where as part of a Fes­ti­val on The Future, the Sci­ence Fic­tion writer was being asked to give a lec­ture on his advice for the future. Besides his impres­sive mut­ton-chop side­burns and live­ly demeanor, I also remem­ber what he spoke about.

One of the main points of his talk was that he found him­self great­ly influ­enced by an ear­ly piece of Sci­ence Fic­tion him­self. It was a nov­el called “The Man Who Awoke”, writ­ten in 1933 by Lawrence Man­ning. Despite some sil­ly dia­log and flat char­ac­ters, I actu­al­ly had read the book and real­ly liked it. It was about a rich her­mit named Nor­man Win­ters, who found a way to put him­self into sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion in a sub­ter­ranean cham­ber he’d con­struct­ed, for thou­sands of years at a time, mak­ing him a sort of one-way time trav­el­er. When he first wakes up in the year 5000AD, all of the world’s fos­sil fuels have been used up, and the peo­ple alive at that point use alco­hol refined from wood pulp as a fuel, and referred to the past cen­turies as the Great Age of Waste. The book is a com­pendi­um of pop­u­lar Sci­ence Fic­tion plots: in lat­er chap­ters, in the times that Win­ters awakes cen­turies lat­er, the Earth is run by a tyran­ni­cal cen­tral com­put­er (see any num­ber of Star Trek and oth­er Sci-Fi series plots), then he tries to inter­vene with a city of sleep­ers who can pro­gram their own dreams (see The Matrix), he then finds a world dom­i­nat­ed by anar­chists in enor­mous walk­ing robots who per­form Genet­ic Exper­i­ments, and final­ly, he reach­es the age where Man dis­cov­ers Immor­tal­i­ty (and just in time for him, too).

It was that first episode, how­ev­er, that struck Asi­mov as down­right plau­si­ble; as we know very well today, there are only finite reserves of fos­sil fuels, and we now know that burn­ing them at the rate we’ve been doing for pow­er and trans­porta­tion has led to cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate changes. After years of study and thought, Asi­mov (back in the 1970’s, when he gave this lec­ture) sug­gest­ed a scheme where we launched satel­lites into geo­sta­tion­ary orbit, much the way weath­er satel­lites are today. These satel­lites, how­ev­er, would use arrays of solar cells to col­lect the sun’s ener­gy and con­vert it into elec­tric­i­ty. To get that pow­er back to the earth, Asi­mov sug­gest­ed a microwave beam, that like a tow­er between the earth and the satel­lite, would nev­er move, and allow us to con­tin­u­ous­ly har­vest pow­er, with­out any inter­rup­tions of clouds or storms.

Much of Asi­mov’s pro­pos­al was dis­missed in the 1970’s, most­ly because it was too expen­sive, par­tic­u­lar­ly when you fac­tored in all of the rock­ets that you would need to launch and man­pow­er you’d need to sup­port in space to build such a struc­ture. A lot of peo­ple were still in denial that mankind would ever real­ly run out of oil, despite the Ener­gy Cri­sis of 1973 being a clear warn­ing shot off the US’s bow.

Today, with Man­ning’s 1933 prophe­cy com­ing true, and the even more seri­ous prob­lem of glob­al warm­ing from the Green­house Effect, Asi­mov’s pro­pos­al is start­ing to look far more attrac­tive. In fact, if you fac­tor in the sav­ings we get by using robots to build the solar arrays (anoth­er Asi­mov cre­ation, but odd­ly enough, he nev­er dis­cussed using them to help build his orbital con­struc­tions), improve­ments in pho­to­volta­ic effi­cien­cy, new­er, lighter mate­ri­als, and the idea starts to gain cred­i­bil­i­ty.

I found that last bit out in an arti­cle on the web site for New Sci­en­tist, where the US Pen­ta­gon has sug­gest­ed Space-Based Solar Pow­er Facil­i­ties as a poten­tial solu­tion to our ener­gy prob­lems:

A report released yes­ter­day by the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Space Office (NSSO) rec­om­mends that the US gov­ern­ment spon­sor projects to demon­strate solar-pow­er-gen­er­at­ing satel­lites and pro­vide finan­cial incen­tives for fur­ther pri­vate devel­op­ment of the tech­nol­o­gy.

Space-based solar pow­er would use kilo­me­ter-sized solar pan­el arrays to gath­er sun­light in orbit. It would then beam pow­er down to Earth in the form of microwaves or a laser, which would be col­lect­ed in anten­nas on the ground and then con­vert­ed to elec­tric­i­ty. Unlike solar pan­els based on the ground, solar pow­er satel­lites placed in geo­sta­tion­ary orbit above the Earth could oper­ate at night and dur­ing cloudy con­di­tions.

We think we can be a cat­a­lyst to make this tech­nol­o­gy advance,” said US Marine Corps lieu­tenant colonel Paul Damp­housse of the NSSO at a press con­fer­ence yes­ter­day in Wash­ing­ton, DC, US.

The NSSO report rec­om­mends that the US gov­ern­ment spend $10 bil­lion over the next 10 years to build a test satel­lite capa­ble of beam­ing 10 megawatts of elec­tric pow­er down to Earth.

My favourite part of the arti­cle comes right at the end:

…the NSSO and its sup­port­ers say that no fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tif­ic break­throughs are nec­es­sary to pro­ceed with the idea and that space-based solar pow­er will be prac­ti­cal in the next few decades.

There are no tech­nol­o­gy hur­dles that are show stop­pers right now,” said Damp­housse.

So, noth­ing new to invent, and we could have much of the prob­lems of the end of cheap oil and Green­house gas buildup fixed with­in, say, 15 years. That might just save the human race from extinc­tion (even if we do lose the Polar Bear).

I am aware of the dan­gers of a fixed and con­tin­u­ous microwave beam, and we have no idea what it would do the atmos­phere. I cer­tain­ly would­n’t want to be a bird (or plane) that wan­dered too close to the beam itself. Nev­er­the­less, I can’t help think­ing that if we’d only lis­tened to Asi­mov, when I met him back in the 1970s, we’d be in much bet­ter shape now, but maybe it’s not too late to heed his advice 30 years lat­er.

18 Replies to “Has the World Finally Caught Up with Isaac Asimov's Vision?”

  1. Sor­ry David, but the num­bers just don’t add up at all:

    The fact that no “fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tif­ic break­throughs are nec­es­sary” just means that the project is pos­si­ble using today’s tech­nol­o­gy (just like wind pow­er, wave pow­er, etc. etc.), but you also saw the num­bers, right? “10 bil­lion dol­lars over a ten year peri­od to build a test satel­lite capa­ble of beam­ing 10 megawatts of elec­tric pow­er down to earth”.

    In the year 2000, the com­bined capac­i­ty of U.S. elec­tric pow­er plants was 604,514 megawatts [Offi­cial ener­gy sta­tis­tics from the U.S. gov­ern­ment]

    When I was a kid in the 70’s I kept hear­ing on the news that there was 20 years of oil left. Now, 30 years lat­er, the num­ber is 40 or 50 years, I think. They keep find­ing more of the stuff. Oil is still way too cheap, and the result­ing pol­lu­tion is still most­ly free (i.e. it’s not the ones who pol­lute who pay). That needs to change before any­thing else will change.

    I don’t buy into the 15 year hori­zon on fix­ing the prob­lems.

  2. Jan — You’re right that 10 megawatts cer­tain­ly does­n’t even begin to take a bite out of 604+ megawatts. I guess I’m prob­a­bly too opti­mistic (and the thought that a nerdy Sci Fi Author of the ’70s had ‘the answer’ all along is prob­a­bly not a real­is­tic thought, either, but it sure­ly would be the best Revenge of the Nerds of all time!)

    I’m also now won­der­ing what would hap­pen to the elec­tric­i­ty after it reached the earth in that tow­er­ing microwave beam; how would it get sent around? How would it get stored? How would we con­tin­ue to build the machines that we’d need in order to turn that elec­tric­i­ty into motion, heat, and oth­er work? There are so many holes in the sce­nario, that I now begin to won­der how New Sci­en­tist could make so many leaps of faith in the sto­ry.

    I guess there are no easy answers, and worst of all, you’re absolute­ly right about the iner­tia that has infect­ed the devel­oped world with respect to chang­ing our habits, lifestyles and appetites when it comes to the gulp­ing of nat­ur­al resources and gen­er­at­ing of pol­lu­tion. Even if some cat­a­clysmic Nat­ur­al Dis­as­ter (and one worse than Kat­ri­na, and cen­tered upon an afflu­ent White sub­urb) hits the US, they won’t be able to put 2 and 2 togeth­er and change. I’ve no con­fi­dence in the Amer­i­can pub­lic or politi­cians, but I guess I haven’t quite giv­en up on hi-tech com­pa­nies. Maybe I should.

  3. ddruck­er — ” I’m also now won­der­ing what would hap­pen to the elec­tric­i­ty after it reached the earth in that tow­er­ing microwave beam; how would it get sent around? How would it get stored? How would we con­tin­ue to build the machines that we’d need in order to turn that elec­tric­i­ty into motion, heat, and oth­er work? There are so many holes in the sce­nario, that I now begin to won­der how New Sci­en­tist could make so many leaps of faith in the sto­ry. ”

    How do you think it gets sent around now? How do you think it gets stored now? your com­ment on how would we build the machines to use the elec­tric­i­ty is sim­ply dumb.

    The project is pos­si­ble and 99% of the solu­tions are here now it is just a ques­tion of willpow­er and neces­si­ty to build it. It is NOT a pipe dream and does not require any ‘leap of faith’.

  4. Geez, I’m get­ting it com­ing and going.

    Milan­der, I’m not sure what you think is dumb about the fact that there are cur­rent­ly no elec­tric-pow­ered dump-trucks, heli­copters or even fac­to­ries to make these machines. I also think that say­ing that 99% of the solu­tions are here strikes me as an even greater stretch than the arti­cle sug­gest­ed.

    As for the project being a ques­tion of willpow­er and neces­si­ty to build it, I agree, but it, like any oth­er mas­sive ener­gy project in which some of the ele­ments are not ful­ly defined (like the con­ver­sion of the ener­gy to and from microwaves, the envi­ron­men­tal impact of a mas­sive microwave beam, how to best keep the beam steady and avoid­ing any chance of things going hor­ri­bly wrong and the beam blast­ing across the coun­try­side, and oth­er ‘minor’ details) is indeed a ‘leap of faith’ in the design­ers and engi­neers, at the very least. Has any­body ever con­vert­ed Microwave ener­gy to elec­tric­i­ty at the scale they’re talk­ing about? I don’t think so. What hap­pens to the effi­cien­cy of con­ver­sion at that lev­el of trans­fer? What do you shield work­ers at the receiv­ing sta­tion from microwave leak­age with? And just how do you design the receiv­ing sta­tion, not to men­tion the satel­lite itself? The largest solar array cur­rent­ly in orbit is prob­a­bly the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, and just yes­ter­day astro­nauts had to per­form what sound­ed like a haz­ardous space­walk in order to repair a ‘tear’ in the array. To sim­ply say that this is only a lack of will is over­stat­ing the case. I’m with you on that, but call­ing any ques­tion­ing of miss­ing details (and there were plen­ty of them) ‘dumb’ is doing a dis­ser­vice to your argu­ment.

  5. Don’t see why this should be such an impos­si­ble task, con­sid­er­ing the alter­na­tives. A bil­lion dol­lars a year to try out what could mean an unlim­it­ed ener­gy resource is peanuts, please do com­pare this sum of mon­ey to the cost of — par­don the cliché — the Gulf War. Or, for that mat­ter the cost of drilling, refin­ing, trans­port­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing petro­le­um world wide.

    Nat­u­ral­ly, it’s to be expect­ed that an ini­tial test run would pro­duce a minute amount of ener­gy. How much petro­le­um was refined and used as fuel a hun­dred years ago? How exten­sive a a tool was the inter­net fif­teen years ago? Obvi­ous­ly, every new tech­nol­o­gy ini­tial­ly only gen­er­ates a loss of invest­ment, that’s just how inven­tion fund­ing works.

    With a few test facil­i­ties improv­ing and pop­u­lar­iz­ing solar pow­er, we could hope for vir­tu­al­ly free ener­gy with­in our life time. Imag­ine the con­se­quences of that sit­u­a­tion — with the Mid­dle East no longer being of imper­a­tive strate­gic impor­tance, maybe there’d be a chance for peace in that war-torn region. All the resources we put into ener­gy pro­duc­tion today could be redi­rect­ed into what­ev­er we choose. Such as free health care, edu­ca­tion and fresh drink­ing water for every­one on the plan­et, per­haps. Wan­na be nerdy about it? We could also spend all those tril­lions of dol­lars annu­al­ly wast­ed on petro­le­um prod­ucts that poi­son the plan­et on col­o­niz­ing space. Or any­thing else you fan­cy.

    Sounds like a pret­ty good deal to me, or at the very least a pos­si­bil­i­ty worth explor­ing, as our cur­rent way of life has warped our sur­round­ings to the point where we con­sid­er cli­mate change a banal­i­ty.

  6. All visions attract naysay­ers. Accept­ing the chal­lenge of some­thing which might not work is vast­ly prefer­able to inac­tion.

  7. Struc­tures in orbit will always be nice tar­gets for space junk. Large solar pan­ells would be destroyed rather quick­ly.

  8. While huge arrays of solar pan­els beam­ing “free” ener­gy back to us on Earth are cer­tain­ly atten­tion grab­bing, I can’t help but feel there are far more prac­ti­cal solu­tions to the renew­able ener­gy prob­lem avail­able with­out need­ing to take the risk of launch into orbit, or foot the enor­mous bill.

    Geot­her­mal “hot-rock” gen­er­a­tion — where holes are drilled down to a large body of hot, porous rock and water pumped down, heat­ed as it goes through the rock and then pumped back up to dri­ve tur­bines are being inves­ti­gat­ed. Sounds out­landish, but is appar­ent­ly fea­si­ble.

    In Aus­tralia a new wave gen­er­a­tion design is being devel­oped (see http://ceto.com.au/home.php ) that is com­plete­ly sub­merged (ship and storm safe), and has costs per unit of ener­gy com­pa­ra­ble to wind gen­er­a­tion but is suit­able for base load (ie 24/7) — the wave ener­gy is always there to be extract­ed, unlike wind or solar.

    Also, earth based solar farms where mir­rors focus sun­light onto heat­ing pipes to heat a work­ing flu­id (which can be stored for use dur­ing the night) seem to be devel­op­ing quite well.

    Get­ting to my point — I think there will be oth­er, eas­i­er ener­gy sources exploit­ed well before orbit­ing solar farms appear.

    Final­ly, what would the car­bon foot­print of build­ing and launch­ing a solar satel­lite sys­tem be? How long would it need to pro­duce for to off­set that, and how would that com­pare to its ser­vice life­time? Don’t wan­na be a grinch, but I just don’t see orbit being christ­mas. Yet.

  9. To address Jan’s com­ments about the increas­ing size of oil reserves, there’s an easy expla­na­tion as to why reserves are increas­ing.

    Reserve num­bers are direct­ly relat­ed to the price of oil. The exact mean­ing of the term is how much oil is recov­er­able at the giv­en price of oil…Essentially, oil that is unprof­itable to get is not count­ed as reserves. The price is going up today and so are reserves.

    Canada’s oil sands (a LOT of oil) got added around $50 Bbl, I believe. There’s also the mat­ter of turn­ing Coal into Oil, which becomes prof­itable at around $65 Bbl, and coal reserves are at around 200–250 years.

    Also worth not­ing is that OPEC changed some of its rules in the 80’s so that reserves affect­ed how much a nation could sell…and the “offi­cial” reserves of the OPEC coun­tries sud­den­ly dou­bled with­out any change in price or any new explo­ration. So some of the reserves don’t even exist.

    In any case, it’s the end of cheap oil, just not the end of oil. Not yet, any­way.

  10. I’m not sure neg­a­tive com­ments are at all called for or of use in this case as they are not con­struc­tive in nature, and they only give an opin­ion instead of stat­ing fact. “That is dumb” is an opin­ion, not a fact. If it were a fact, it would be sup­port­ed with evi­dence or at least a valid argu­ment (which, now that I think of it, would con­tain evi­dence).

    Seri­ous­ly, how much change can this arti­cle affect? In turn, take into con­sid­er­a­tion how much change the com­ment will make on an arti­cle that makes prac­ti­cal­ly no change what­so­ev­er. All the arti­cle is doing is relay­ing infor­ma­tion already report­ed some­where else, and adding the bit about it being Issac Asi­mov’s idea orig­i­nal­ly.

    The idea in the arti­cle is an inter­est­ing one. The best fea­ture I could sug­gest about orbit­ing solar pan­els is the abil­i­ty to point the ener­gy wher­ev­er you need it. Set­ting up a mil­i­tary base in the mid­dle of the jun­gle or a sandy expanse nowhere near a pow­er sta­tion? Just cre­ate a portable receiv­er and have the beam (maybe even just a por­tion of the beam) redi­rect­ed to your cur­rent posi­tion. The same could be said for orbit­ing space sta­tions that might slip into shad­ow, or for boost­ing the pow­er on some futur­is­tic moon set­tle­ment.

    Sure, a huge solar “sail” would prob­a­bly get torn by the occa­sion­al space debris, but would it real­ly be that expen­sive of an obsta­cle that it would out-weigh the advan­tages gained from its imple­men­ta­tion?

    My biggest fear would be that the beam would be used as a weapon. Imag­ine a 10 megawatt microwave beam able to hit any point on an entire hemi­sphere. Once the AI advances beyond human con­trol, we’ll have spy satel­lites cou­pled to solar-pow­ered microwave can­nons and each time we dis­obey the tyran­ni­cal, mechan­i­cal gods we’ll get an unfriend­ly taze from the skies.

    Then again, I’m not all that con­cerned about glob­al warm­ing and the rate of ener­gy con­sump­tion as I’m sure we’ll nuke our­selves into obliv­ion long before we run out of fos­sil fuels. If we don’t, I’m of the mind that we’ll nuke each oth­er fight­ing for the last few drops of oil, and any sur­vivors will live in a hell unimag­in­able to you or I and will prob­a­bly kill them­selves to end their suf­fer­ing.

    Can this com­ment get any longer? Why, of course!

    I’d final­ly like to say to the nay-say­ers: just because obsta­cles exist does not mean we should give up think­ing of solu­tions.

  11. 50 years ago peo­ple said that peo­ple walk­ing in space was IMPOSSIBLE. No one with half a brain can deny that the ice caps are melt­ing, we have a hole in our atmos­phere and tem­per­a­tures are ris­ing faster then gas prices. Why do peo­ple reject any idea there pea sized brain can not under­stand. We must do some­thing. This sounds as good as not doing noth­ing.

  12. Would you like to live next to a gigawatt beam that could cook you in a sec­ond if the aim of the sender was off by the mer­est frac­tion of a degree? Even if there were guar­an­tees against use as as weapon (which I would not trust) I would­n’t trust my life to such tech­nol­o­gy.

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