Invest here or in the space

Global concerns about the future energy situation in the past two decades have led to policies that advocate modern technologies for generation, distribution and use of alternative energy forms. In addition, within the past twenty years, conventional fossil fuel consumption has become more efficient through modernization of automobiles and refinery facilities. However, with many of these efforts having been hindered by political and economic forces, along with the exponential growth of global energy needs, we have now come to a point where making decisions on energy policies seem more critical that immediate social, economic and foreign policy issues. Energy issues constitute a significant portion of the current government’s agenda as was reflected in the budget plans, and it will inarguably be so for the next government.

When speaking of alternative energy resources and efficiency investment, space research might sound the least relevant. In fact there might even exist this general conception that space missions pursue extravagant and ambitious goals with achievements that do not apply in short term to any of the immediate national needs, in particular energy crisis. Consequently, a cut of $1billion in NASA’s budget per year for the next four years [1] seems completely rational and in contrast, a  $3.2 budget request for the more critical energy efficiency and renewable energy (EERE) research support for the fiscal year 2012 is completely justified.

A closer look into the energy related aspects of space missions might show a different picture and allow us to make a better conclusion. Firstly, because of the very constrained and sensitive circumstances involved in space missions, the space energy technology must be extremely efficient and beyond the commercial state-of-the art.  The extent of energy efficiency and alternative power sources are firm requirements that determine the feasibility of a whole space mission. As a result, many byproducts of space missions are efficient energy containers and devices such as batteries, electric cars and robust solar panels or mirrors with very high standards, and extremely sustainable. Furthermore, long term space missions are focused on means of space power generation and storage, with the goal of eventually building power generators beyond outside of earth’s atmosphere and possibly on other planets. As pointed by the NASA’s Space Power and Energy Storage Roadmap [3], projects of these kinds will bring upon many possible side benefits to the energy sector on earth including (simply quoting from the document): “all-electric and hybrid cars (batteries, fuel cells, etc.), grid-scale energy storage systems (batteries, electrolyzers, fuel cells, flywheels, PMAD, etc.), smart grid (PMAD, analytical tools), terrestrial solar power systems (high efficiency solar cells, advanced arrays, PV calibration, solar concentrators, Stirling convertors, systems analysis), advanced nuclear power systems, green energy systems (alternative fuels, advanced PMAD for wind/solar systems, energy conservation analysis, etc.), and remote, off-grid power systems (crewed vehicles and habitats).”

Another example of the impacts of space technology on current energy problems on earth is the energy explorations on different planets such as Mars. Part of space exploration missions focuses on finding alternative sources of energy from the surfaces or atmospheres of planets, and modern and cost efficient ways of extracting them (I found a presentation by Dr. Michael Duke, the director at Colorado School of Mines,  which enumerates several such examples [4]).

Extraction of oil from oil sands is a good example of the latter point. Oil sands (or tar sands) are a particular form of sandstones that contain an organic fuel material called bituminous [5].  Extracting bituminous from tar sand requires using large amounts of water which, in addition, leaves the water contaminated. This has raised some environment protection concerns in countries with vast tar sand resources such as Canada [6]. According to the article [7], Mars exploration space missions have led to a development of an extraction process for tar sands which consumes significantly less volumes of water and leaves less pollution.

With these examples in mind, perhaps we should think that space missions, despite their extravagant budgets and unclear short term achievements have major benefits to the energy sector and energy technology in the long term.

[1] NASA 2013 budget estimates:  http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/622643main_FY%2013%20Budget%20Presentation.pdf

[2] EERE Fiscal year 2012 congressional budget: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/ba/pba/pdfs/fy12_budget.pdf

[3] NASA Space Power and Energy Storage Roadmap, Technology Area 03, draft Nov. 2013:

http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/501328main_TA03-SpacePowerStorage-DRAFT-Nov2010-A.pdf

[4] Space resources, presentation by Michael B. Duke: http://history.nasa.gov/DPT/Technology%20Priorities%20Recommendations/Space%20Resources%20DPT%20Boulder%2000.pdf

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_sands

[6] Canada’s toxic tar sands, Christopher Hatch and Matt Price:

http://www.desmogblog.com/sites/beta.desmogblog.com/files/TarSands_TheReport%20final.pdf

[7] Mars Technology to Help Process Unconventional Energy Sources, by Tudor Vieru, June 2009:

http://news.softpedia.com/news/Mars-Technology-To-Help-Process-Unconventional-Energy-Sources-113744.shtml

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by | 31 March 2012 · 3:05 pm

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