As part of their special report on wireless technology, Wired reviews the possibility of wireless power beams:

[S]cientists have shown that one can generate power, convert it to lasers or microwaves, beam it to another point and reconvert it into electricity. Such a system could beam power to hard-to-reach rural areas without running expensive power lines — or could even beam it down to Earth from power stations in space.

But while proponents argue that wireless power beams could solve the world’s energy problems, skeptics aren’t so sure. In addition, the concept hasn’t proven itself as a practical energy alternative: at least not yet.

If you think this all sounds too crazy, consider this:

One long-sought application is aviation. In 1987, Canada successfully flew its Stationary High Altitude Relay Platform aircraft using power generated from a microwave beam on the ground. In 1992, Japan successfully flew its own version of a microwave-powered plane as part of a project known as MILAX.

And in October 2003, NASA actually used a ground-based laser beam to power the flight of a tiny 11-ounce aircraft made of balsa wood and carbon fiber tubing, and covered in Mylar film.

Others have imagined terrestrial networks of power-beaming stations that could fuel electric cars and other vehicles, which would essentially “top off” every time they passed by a station. Some could power up vehicles at stoplights.

And could this help explain the Bush administration’s interest in the moon?

In November 2003, David Criswell, director of the Institute for Space Systems Operations at the University of Houston, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on science, technology and space to pitch a Lunar Solar Power system. LSP would use colossal solar arrays on the surface of the moon that would beam microwave energy down to Earth.

Criswell’s concept is massive in scale: It would involve building 20,000 to 30,000 reception stations on Earth to accept the power beams and convert them into electricity that could be distributed to the population (The solar panels would be constructed on the moon with raw materials in the soil in “basically a glass-making process,” he said).

Meanwhile, a series of moon bases housing up to 5,000 human beings (but possibly only a few hundred because of recent advances in automation and robotics) would be required on the lunar surface. “I hope they’re Americans,” Criswell told Wired News. “We’d be extending ourselves off of the Earth permanently.”

Criswell predicts that the LSP system could produce a steady 20-terawatt stream that he predicts the estimated 10 billion people living on Earth by 2050 will need. “It actually provides you with such clean, sustainable energy that we can correct our past errors,” he said.

So, if you like to play with laser beams, NASA has a challenge for you:

… NASA has created the 2005 “Beam Power Challenge” to award $50,000 to the team whose climbing bot can lift the most mass in three minutes by most efficiently converting beam power into electricity. Second and third place will receive $20,000 and $10,000, respectively.

At this year’s Oct. 21 competition, all teams will receive power from the same photonic source: a 10-kilowatt Xenon searchlight. But next year’s competition will allow each team to also build their own beam-power device, which could use photons, lasers or microwaves. Sponberg said the purse for the 2006 competition will be $150,000 ($100,000, $40,000 and $10,000 to the three best teams).