Can we build solar farms in space?

2 Jan 2024

Image: Dan Lamb

Dr Dan Lamb from Swansea University is developing tech to generate renewable energy in space.

In the first article of our Science Uncovered series for 2024, we explore the cosmic future of renewable energy.

Dr Dan Lamb from Swansea University is researching the viability of low-cost, lightweight solar panels in space, which would be able to continuously generate energy and transfer it to Earth.

Lamb has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a PhD in materials science from Bangor University in Wales. He has held several postdoc positions researching thin film semiconductor materials, with an emphasis on solar cell applications. He is currently the research lead at the Oxide and Chalcogenide MOCVD Centre at Swansea University.

‘Our existence has become inextricably intertwined with space-based technologies ‘

Tell us about your current research.

Over the last 10 years I’ve had a growing interest in solar cells for powering space applications.

The cadmium telluride thin film semiconductor solar cell material that our group specialises in, is widely deployed for terrestrial applications. We identified an opportunity to put our cadmium telluride thin films directly onto the ultrathin thin space glass (0.1mm). This glass is ubiquitously laminated on top of space solar cells to protect them from the harsh space environment.

We were successful in attracting UK Research and Innovation funding in 2012 to test the feasibility of this approach. In 2016 we won a competitive bid to fly a solar cell experimental payload on the UK and Algerian Space Agencies AlSat Nano CubeSat mission.

The mission was a great success for our experiment, providing us with a world-first for cadmium telluride on space glass and in transmitting the solar cell data back to Earth.

The mission was scheduled to last for one year but seven years later, we’re still receiving data from the solar cells!

In parallel with the cadmium telluride solar cell research, I’m developing a new laboratory with equipment that will be able to provide the UK R&D community with specialised thin film semiconductors. These are either not available, or in very limited supply, elsewhere. This will help to forge new research collaborations and bring online new projects in optoelectronic areas outside of solar cells, such as power electronics and sensors.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The global drive towards net zero will require improvements to existing technology and the development of new materials.

Thin film semiconductors play a commanding role in renewable energy production and low-carbon emission technology.

The opportunity for me to contribute to this movement is very exciting.

Our modern-day existence has become inextricably intertwined with space-based technologies such as global positioning, telecommunications and Earth observation.

My research into this new material for space solar cells targets a low-cost, low carbon footprint coupled with a lightweight, radiation-hardened and flexible product.

Applications will include in-space power for green propulsion solutions, powering lunar bases and space-based solar power. The latter has received much attention in the past few years with many countries racing to produce demonstrators for this potential clean energy solution. Very large solar cell arrays in space could convert the sunlight into electricity 24/7 and beam the energy down to precise locations on Earth as a continuous power supply.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was not a particularly high achiever in secondary school but I was lucky enough to have an inspirational GCSE chemistry teacher who really believed in me. My love for understanding the nature of materials was born in those formative lessons.

As a mature student, I went on to complete an Access to Science course that kick-started my journey through a degree and PhD and into a career in research.

My PhD focused on the deposition and analysis of thin film optoelectronic materials and again I was fortunate enough to have a supervisor whose passion for research was infectious.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

One of the challenges is effectively communicating my research to the public. A lot of the research I conduct is funded by the UK government and there’s a strong obligation on me to translate experimental findings into real-world applications – to demonstrate some future value to the UK economy or scientific reputation.

Attracting research funding is a highly competitive process. I endeavour to meet this challenge by building collaborative funding bids with other leading research groups and industry.

Do you think public engagement with science and data has changed in recent years?

This is very hard to measure but I’d suggest there is more awareness of how data can be used in different ways and often subjectively to push diametrically opposed viewpoints. This is unfortunate for the scientific community where we pride ourselves on presenting objective summaries of data. Scientists seek to qualify data with any caveats or assumptions, a step often left out by politically motivated presentations of data.

How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

Where possible, I take up any requests for wider public engagement. In the past, this has included radio interviews, articles for trade magazines, presentations at science fairs and providing information to news outlets.

Hopefully, with the move towards open access of journal publications, the public will be able to freely take advantage of the wealth of knowledge being generated by the research community.

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