Lunar Power Solutions Could Impact Earth

Wednesday, December 23 2009

MOSCOW, Idaho – Researching the best way to store energy for future lunar colonies could help solve energy issues back on Earth.

A team of researchers from the University of Idaho, the Boeing Company, and NASA was recently awarded $70,000 to improve and adapt flywheel energy storage technology for future attempts to colonize the moon. The grant was one of 18 proposals funded by the NASA Ralph Steckler Research and Technology Grant program.

The Steckler program is named after the late Ralph Steckler, a successful assistant film director and photographer, who left his estate to NASA in order to fund research with an eye toward the colonization of space.

“This is pretty exciting technology to work with right now,” said Joe Law, associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Idaho. “In space applications, flywheels have some major advantages to batteries and the technology has some major applications here on Earth.”

A flywheel uses a disc spinning at high velocities to store energy. Energy produced by outside means – such as solar panels, nuclear reactors or wind turbines – is pumped into the system, causing the flywheel to begin spinning. Once up to speed, the flywheel continues spinning until the energy is needed. Power electronics then convert the kinetic energy from the flywheel back into electricity.

On Earth, flywheels have to operate in a vacuum on top of powerful superconducting electromagnets. The vacuum cuts down on energy losses due to air friction while the electromagnets reduce the flywheel’s weight, cutting down on surface friction with the bearings on which it spins.

But on the moon, a vacuum container isn’t necessary since there is no atmosphere, and the flywheel is already nearly weightless. Additionally, flywheels do not have to be kept warm like batteries and last much longer.

However, in order to be viable on the moon, scientists must make power electronics that can operate in the moon’s harsh environment. They must also address energy losses due to the interaction of permanent magnets and the large iron structure.

These are the issues the team will be addressing.

“But besides the lunar applications, flywheel technology also could have a major impact here on Earth,” said Law. “Two things that come to mind are wind energy and the energy grid.”

Currently, when energy spikes occur, the excess energy is simply dumped into large heating coils and is lost in the form of heat. Instead, this energy could be dumped into flywheels. They also could absorb spikes and valleys of energy while simultaneously transmitting a steady level of power out to the energy grid, which would help stabilize the system that must be kept in a constant, careful balance.

Another application is wind mill farms, which produce large amounts of energy when it is windy but none when it is still. Flywheels could store all of the energy produced and then slowly release it at a constant rate, creating a bridge in the gaps between the windy times of energy production.

The grant is the first phase of the Steckler program. It will last nine months and establish the scientific merit of each of project. Phase two will last two years and could provide a maximum of $250,000 to the four most promising projects. From there, two teams will be chosen to participate in the third phase, in which they will be awarded up to $275,000 for two additional years, during which time their previous efforts will be integrated with NASA programs or projects.

The University of Idaho team includes Herbert Hess, professor of electrical and computer engineering; along with, Joseph Law and David Atkinson, professors of electrical engineering. They are working in partnership with Robert Frampton, from Boeing; and Michael Strasik, flywheel program manager for Boeing; assisting from NASA is Terry Forg, director of NASA's intelligent robotics group. The team submitted its proposal through the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium.

More information about NASA’s Steckler Space Grant is available online: or

About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

About the Idaho Space Grant Consortium
The NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium was established in 1991 as part of the NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. The ISGC comprises 22 institutions including all colleges and universities in the state, science centers and museums, science organizations, state departments, industry representatives, a state park, and a national monument.

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit