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Moon dirt considered for power supply

By Richard Stenger

Is there power in these hills?
Is there power in these hills?

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(CNN) -- Could huge solar power stations be built on the moon? Engineers taking part in NASA research think so, using raw materials available in the lunar soil.

The scientists, working together with NASA and industry researchers, are investigating whether moon-based power stations and huge solar energy arrays could provide electricity for lunar colonies, satellites and perhaps even Earth.

The key to the power godsend would be manufacturing advanced solar equipment on the moon, avoiding the high cost of transporting them through space.

"The raw materials needed to make solar cells are present in the moon's regolith," said University of Houston physicist Alex Freundlich, referring to the layer of loose rock on the surface of our cosmic neighbor.

Freundlich and colleagues, who studied actual moon soil to make sure it possesses the necessary ingredients, have also used simulated lunar dirt to figure out how to produce solar cells on the moon.

They think that a robotic rover could melt surface lunar material into a glass sheet, then place thin solar cells on the glass surface. An extensive panel of such arrays could generate electricity from incoming solar rays.

"These solar cells would have lower efficiencies compared to devices currently used on Earth," Freundlich said this week. "But by using a large surface area, we could eventually generate enough electricity to supply a lunar base, support lunar manufacturing or colonies."

David Criswell, another University of Houston physicist, thinks moon-based solar power could generate enough juice to beam back home for use in electrical grids.

By the year 2050, a projected population of 10 billion might need roughly four times the amount used now, he said

If a lunar power station or stations harnessed just 1 percent of the solar energy that strikes the moon, it could satisfy the planet's future appetite, according to Criswell.

Certainly building such a technological marvel, especially one that delivers power at a reasonable price, would be a daunting task.

But considering that fossil fuel production releases major pollutants, that the moon basks in a reliable and powerful beam of sunlight, and that such an infrastructure could be built with lunar materials, then the challenge seems more feasible, Criswell said.

"Prosperity for everyone on Earth requires a sustainable source of electricity," Criswell said. "A priority for me is getting people to realize that the lunar power system may be the only option for sustainable, global prosperity."

Freundlich, Criswell and colleagues plan to present their research next week at the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas.

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