This 26-year-old engineer plans to generate solar power at night using space mirrors

This will make solar the cheapest type of clean energy.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
solar panels
A satellite.


The biggest challenge with solar power is that it can be produced only during the day. This is also one of the major reasons why many people and industries abstain from investing in solar panels because they are not a stable source of power. However, 26-year-old innovator and entrepreneur Ben Nowack claims to have developed a method that would allow solar energy production during the night as well.

Nowack has previously worked at SpaceX and currently, he is the CEO of Tons of Mirrors, a company that he founded with a vision to replace fossil fuels by making solar energy cheaper and more accessible than ever. Tons of Mirrors has plans to install a special setup incorporating large mirrors and a collimator device on the International Space Station (ISS). This setup on ISS would be able to redirect sunlight to solar panels on Earth during the night.

“Today, with the solar panels that are out there, it's a $20 billion-a-year industry. What I’m building is bigger than any of the markets they currently have. If this is the electric solution, and let's say in 200 years this replaces fossil fuels, it’s a $17 trillion market,” Nowack told Vice.

The idea of redirecting sunlight from space is not new

This 26-year-old engineer plans to generate solar power at night using space mirrors
Sun rays falling on a glass building.

The sunlight-directing setup on ISS would work as an orbital solar reflector, basically, a device that reflects sunlight to Earth while orbiting in space. Nowack is not the first person to propose this concept. The idea of an orbital solar reflector was first presented in a hearing before the US senate in 1977 and in the following years, scientists from across the globe tried to demonstrate the technique, however, none of them were able to do so.

Currently, researchers at the University of Glasgow are working on space-based satellite solar reflector technology that would enable large solar farms to have an adequate supply of sunlight during times when energy demand is at the peak. Recently, China has also announced plans to release three artificial moons in space. These satellites would be equipped with mirrors and they are said to have the potential to produce light bright enough to replace streetlights in the country by the end of this year.

Nowack’s initial thought was to encircle Earth with an infinitely long vacuum tube containing sunlight directed using mirrors in space. Since this approach was not economical and required abundant resources and time, he made many changes to his original idea. For instance, the vacuum tube was replaced by a collimator, a device capable of narrowing a large wave of particles or light into a narrow beam.

Nowack further explained, “the James Webb Space Telescope takes light from a very small star very far away and blows that image up. I'm doing precisely the opposite. It's the same exact mirrors, you just turn it the other way.” However, an exact opposite James Webb solar reflector would require the construction of one and a half kilometer large parabolic mirror.

Maintaining perfect shape throughout such a large mirror could be tricky. So, instead of creating one large mirror, Nowack designed a structure comprising multiple parabolic mirrors and collimator tiles. He believes that the design is efficient, economical, and scalable.

So what are we waiting for?

This 26-year-old engineer plans to generate solar power at night using space mirrors
A solar farm.

Nowack is currently raising money so that he could get his collimator tiles installed on the ISS. He also has plans to launch satellites equipped with the same technology in the future. “Once we’re at that stage, we’ll know how cheap the manufacturing gets, how expensive the set-up is, fixed costs, operating costs. Then we'll have a better idea of how this stacks up against fossil fuel plants. Making this cheaper than everything else, that’s the challenge,” Nowack told Vice.

Space-based solar reflector technology also comes with many challenges. For instance, uncontrolled amounts of redirected light could harm plants, animals, and insects. The reflectors require a large establishment area in space. Plus, in case, the whole setup is required to be transported in space to a new location, the cost of such operations is huge.

Nowack is working to overcome many of these limitations and believes that the challenges should not be taken as an excuse to completely ignore the vast possibilities that space solar reflectors present before the world. He believes that his collimator tiles have the potential to shut down fossil fuel plants and cut down the prices of solar energy by over 90 fold.

Highlighting the geopolitical significance of cheap clean power in the modern world, he said “it’s an enormous national security risk if China has access to electricity for 10 or 100 times cheaper than the US does.”

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