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Longi Green Energy Technology Co., the world’s biggest solar technology manufacturer, will send panels into space as the first step in plans to test the feasibility of harnessing the sun’s power in orbit and transmitting it back to Earth.

The Xi’an-based clean energy giant, which has helped China dominate the solar industry and drive down costs, will also study the use of its products in harsher environments, and assess their suitability for use in space programs, it said in a statement. 

Longi’s decision to establish a laboratory focused on the task could be a first step in the solar sector’s collaboration with China’s space program and toward off-planet power stations, said Wu Zhijian, president of the China Space Foundation, a government-backed agency under the China National Space Administration.

The prospect of harnessing solar power from space is attracting attention from industry and academics because it promises to remove the technology’s major drawback -- that panels don’t operate effectively in darkness -- by placing them into orbit with an unrestricted view of the sun. 

Chinese researchers in Shaanxi’s Xidian University said earlier this year that they had successfully tested a full-system model of a technology designed to transmit solar power from outer space. Their project captures sunlight high above the ground, converts it into microwave beams and transmits it through the air to a receiver station on the ground to be converted into electricity. It’s a process advocates hope can be be expanded to cover the long distances from orbiting panels back to Earth.

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology also launched a space solar program after a $100 million grant in 2013, while teams in nations including Japan, Russia and India are also studying the possibilities

Longi’s new laboratory will also consider plans for energy monitoring satellites and environmental verification from space.

 

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