Donald Bren's $100 Million Donation to Caltech's Space Solar Power Project

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Caltech space solar power project
From left, Sergio Pellegrino, co-director of the Space-Based Solar Power Project; Brigitte Bren; Donald Bren; Ali Hajimiri, co-director of the Space-Based Solar Power Project; and Richard Madonna, project manager of the Space-Based Solar Power Project. (Courtesy: Caltech)

As early as 1941, sci-fi pioneer Isaac Asimov wrote of a space station that could capture solar electricity and distribute it among a number of planets. What seemed like a fantasy in the early 1940s is close to becoming a reality. A number of government agencies and private entities have periodically theorized ways to achieve this goal since the 1970s. In November 2020, the UK government commissioned a study that will take a detailed look at the engineering and economics of solar space stations.

To learn more about the basics of Spaced-based solar power, visit our recent article on the topic detailing how it works, the potential benefits that it could provide, and the technical challenges that come along with it.

Caltech’s Space Solar Power Project

Two of the biggest challenges with spaced-based solar power are how to get the solar panels to space and then how to send the energy produced by the panels back to Earth. Researchers at Caltech have been working on solving these challenges since 2013 as part of their Space Solar Power Project. In 2017, the team at Caltech created an ultralight prototype which collects solar energy and transmits the energy via radio frequency (RF) power and, as soon 2023, they plan to launch the prototypes to test the technology in space.

Donald Bren's Financial Gift

It was recently announced that Donald Bren, a billionaire real estate developer who owns and serves as the chairman of Irvine Company, is behind the $100 million donation that started the Space Solar Power Project back in 2013.

Donald Bren is best known for master planning and master building the all-new City of Irvine, and his interest in the Space Solar Power Project (SSPP) originated after he read an article in Popular Science that discussed the concept. After discussing the potential of the project with Jean-Lou Chameau (Caltech's president at the time), Bren and his wife, Brigitte made the anonymous $100 million gift to help fund the project.

Caltech's president, Thomas F. Rosenbaum, praised the real estate developer's contribution, saying “Donald Bren has brought the same drive and discipline that he has demonstrated with master planning communities to the Space Solar Program. He has presented a remarkable technical challenge that promises a remarkable payoff for humanity: a world powered by uninterruptible renewable energy." Bren hopes that his charity will pay off in harnessing the power of the sun to provide cheap, plentiful and renewable energy for everyone's benefit.

The gift from the Brens allowed Caltech to provide support for researchers who promised to dedicate five years to the project. This length of time can work well for doctoral students. The Brens have no financial stake in the project. The Orange County couple gave the money without any ownership considerations, which shows an altruistic side to their philanthropy. Hopefully, Asimov's dream that originated in the early 1940s will become a successful reality less than 100 years after he first inserted it into one of his short stories. If the research pays off, the money contributed to Caltech by the Brens will be a major reason for the success.


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