Power Beaming comes of age

The global demand for electricity to provide ubiquitous connectivity through 5G, 6G and smart infrastructure is growing. This report explains the high beam perspective; its economic, human and environmental impacts; and the challenges of making the technology reliable, efficient, versatile and safe.

Below are the main findings of the report:

Lasers and microwaves offer different approaches to power transfer, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. While microwave-based power transmission has a more established track record due to lower equipment costs, laser-based approaches are showing promise, backed by a growing stream of successful trials and pilot projects. Laser radiation holds great promise for powering equipment at remote sites, the economy in low Earth orbit, electric transport, and underwater applications. The main advantage of lasers is the narrow concentration of beams, which allows the use of smaller transmitting and receiving installations. On the other hand, they have the disadvantage of being disturbed by atmospheric conditions and human interference, although continuous efforts are being made to eliminate these disadvantages.

Energy transfer can accelerate energy decarbonization, improve internet connectivity, and provide disaster response. Climate change is driving investment in energy beams, which could support more radical energy transition approaches. Due to the constant availability of solar energy, transferring it directly from space to Earth provides a better conversion compared to ground-based solar panels when averaged over time. Electric transport – from trains to planes or drones – benefits from energy transfer by avoiding the disruptions and costs associated with laying cables, wiring or recharging landings.

The beams can also transmit power from remote renewable energy sites such as offshore wind farms. Other areas where power transmission could revolutionize energy solutions include fueling space missions and satellites, providing 5G, and post-disaster humanitarian response in remote regions or areas where networks have failed due to extreme weather events, the frequency of which will increase from -for climate change. In the short term, as efficiency continues to improve, power transfer can reduce battery drain, especially in low power indoor applications.

Public participation and education is critical to support the adoption of Power Beaming technology. Lasers and microwaves can produce images of deadly rays and unforeseen health risks. The public reaction to 5G shows the importance of education and information about the safety of new, “invisible” technologies. Based on decades of research, microwave and laser power transmission has been proven to be safe. The public lives comfortably among invisible forces such as Wi-Fi and wireless data transmission; Power Beaming is just the newest chapter.

Commercial investment in power transmission remains muted due to a combination of historical skepticism and uncertain time horizons. While private investment in futuristic industries such as fusion and satellites is skyrocketing, the energy beam sector has received relatively little investment and venture capital compared to the scale of the opportunity. This is partly a “first mover” problem, experts say, as capital allocators wait for signs of momentum. This may be a holdover from past decisions to abandon the beam due to high cost and impracticality, even if such restraint was based on earlier technologies that are now surpassed. Power Beaming also tends to fall between two R&D comfort zones for large corporations: it doesn’t deliver short-term financial benefits, but it also isn’t long-term enough to justify a steady stream of funding.

Download full report.

This content was prepared by Insights, the user-generated content division of MIT Technology Review. This was not written by the editors of the MIT Technology Review.

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