As governments and industry leaders seek alternatives to fossil fuels powering manufacturing and large-scale electric grids, Peter Schubert looks to space as a reliable source of solar power. “We are looking for energy solutions that will be sustainable in perpetuity, without destroying our biosphere,” said Schubert who serves as director of the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy at IUPUI.
The idea? Send large satellites into the GEOstationary earth orbit, and wirelessly transfer the power down to earth. “Because they’re up at a high enough orbit, the shadow of the earth only blocks the sun for a small fraction of the year. And you get sun 24 hours a day,” explained Schubert, who estimates that one satellite could power Indianapolis and its bedroom communities 100% of the time. “Wind and solar, even though they are cheaper, are intermittent. So unless you have large-scale, low-cost energy storage, that limits how much wind and solar you can use to keep Indiana’s manufacturing base going.”
Using IU’s high-powered computing resources like Big Red II, 3, and Carbonate, Schubert, working alongside network engineers at Research Technologies, models how beams of energy can potentially be sent from space.
Plasma Physics, the study of how electrically charged atoms and fluid interact within electric or magnetic fields, forms the basis of this research, and Schubert holds three patents describing a technique to extract pure elements, like aluminum, from moon rock, using plasma. “Once you have electrically charged atoms, they are separated, by charge-to-mass ratio, into individual element streams,” explained Schubert. “The result is high-purity elements from lunar rocks.” These elements, such as silicon and aluminum, form the solar panels which would be delivered to orbit and assembled into large solar power satellites,” he explained.
Coordinating the simulations, software, and systems is a complex process, and he’s [Ray Sheppard from UITS Research Technologies] done really great work to help us solve really hard problems.
Using WARP software, Schubert and his team run simulations of how the beam may behave when manufacturing lunar-based solar panels. At temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, it can be unpredictable. “The ionized atoms, the electrical fields are very sensitive and the elements want to shoot out in all directions,” said Schubert. “So if you’re dealing with a wisp of vapor, you can model them as alone in space. But once you start packing them into a dense beam, the interactions multiply, so it very quickly snowballs into a calculation that’s too much for a laptop,” he continued.
With steady power from space there is Excess power at night. His extra car could be diverted to extract hydrogen from water using electrolysis. Then you need a way to store that hydrogen. Another technology being developed by Schubert, with help from HPC resources is the hydrogen sponge.
A technical paper, accepted to the Journal of Catalysis in 2019, by Professor Schubert and IUPUI Master of Science in Engineering student, Mawla Boaks, outlines some of the problems regarding hydrogen storage medias. These images are from the paper, which can be read here, titled Kinetics of hydrogen storage on catalytically-modified porous silicon:
Raymond Shepard, Senior Technical Lead of Research Applications and Deep Learning at IU Research Technologies, says “Peter’s vision to apply the Warp application to run on IU’s supercomputers did come with a few technical and learning curve challenges, but with his team’s cooperative collaboration, those challenges were successfully solved.”
Schubert says Sheppard’s expertise was an invaluable resource. “I like to bake cookies, but it’s pretty rare that I bake someone cookies more than once for going above the call of duty, but for Ray, I made him cookies twice,” said Schubert. “Coordinating the simulations, software, and systems is a complex process, and he’s done really great work to help us solve really hard problems.” said Schubert.