For the first time since it was built, researchers from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have turned on Synlight, an artificial sun meant to focus the energy of 10,000 sun-Earth radiation rays to a single 20 x 20 cm cone.
Synlight resides in Juelich, Germany, and it is a 45-feet-high honeycomb-shaped array of 149 xenon lamps, each of them able to heat up to a temperature of over 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
One of the primary objectives of Synlight is to help produce hydrogen, as the process does not occur naturally on Earth. This is because hydrogen can be used as clean fuel, as it does not produce carbon emissions upon combustion.
Hydrogen equals clean energy with no pollution
Synlight is one of the several concentrated solar facilities on Earth, which includes large arrays of mirrors that can orient sunlight in a direction and power a steam-based engine to generate electrical power.
Hydrogen occurs naturally when massive levels of energy split water into its primary components. This tends to occur in stars and high-energy astronomical bodies. Another obstacle with using hydrogen as a fuel source is that it is dangerously volatile. Hydrogen gas is highly flammable, famously being attributed the cause of the Hindenburg disaster.
It is also the most abundant element in the universe, representing at least 75 percent of all matter and 90 percent of all atoms, without taking into account dark matter and dark energy. In space, hydrogen is usually found either in its atomic or plasma state, the plasma state being when the hydrogen atom’s single proton is not bound to its single electron. This results in high efficiency in the transmission of light and electricity, making most hydrogen-based stars visible to the naked eye from Earth. On the other hand, hydrogen in its diatomic gas form (H2) does exist in our atmosphere, although it is very rare. As it is very light in mass, it can easily escape Earth’s gravity.
In spite of all obstacles, harnessing hydrogen as a fuel source is critical for the future, as its combustion yields no pollution and no greenhouse gasses whatsoever. The plan for Synlight researchers is to extract hydrogen from water vapor, which would then serve as fuel for planes, cars, and any sort of engine.
Another problem is that Synlight, which cost over $3.8 million to build, will consume enormous amounts of electricity. According to Synlight researchers, they will try to circumvent the power issue by making use of solar energy, although they have not revealed exactly how they plan to do that. Powering Synlight with electricity for 4 hours equals to the power used by a four-person house household in a whole year.
Making use of solar energy is a must
According to the German Aerospace Center, sunlight in central Europe is especially unreliable and irregular, which is why an artificial sun is ideal for powering the processes for developing solar fuels. They claim that fluctuating hours of sunlight and any unfavorable weather usually impact tests concerning solar energy, and even at locations where sunlight is less scarce, the sun does not shine at a constant rate of intensity. This led scientists at the DLR Institute of Solar Research to build an artificial environment to produce precise and accurate conditions for replicating solar energy.
Even if it may seem like a novel idea, concentrated solar power (CSP) is a conception that’s far from being anything new. CSP technology usually involves mirrors, and other CSP facilities apart from Synlight can power at least 70,000 homes, becoming a pillar of the solar energy market.
The earliest use of CSP technology comes from the myth that Archimedes once devised a plan to use concentrated sunlight reflected on bronze shields to incinerate Roman ships during the battle of Syracuse in 212 BC.
Since the sun does not shine throughout the entire day, solar energy is usually stored in the form of thermal energy, which goes to show that storing the energy is as important as producing it, which is why DLR scientists are so concerned about properly storing the hydrogen they produce. As hydrogen is so volatile, they propose mixing it with conventional fossil fuels to make environment-friendly alternatives.
In the U.S., over 800 megawatts of energy are produced by CSP plants located throughout the country. In the next few years, there will be additional facilities to increase the potential output to 1.8 gigawatts, generating electric power for at least 500,000 homes. If combined with fossil fuels, 21 gigawatts of additional CSP energy could be integrated into the U.S.’s electricity grid, enough to power 6 million homes. Doing so would increase performance levels, save up resources, and cut carbon emissions. Furthermore, most of the CSP technology used in the U.S. is domestic in its entirety, and according to Energy.gov, developing it may create job opportunities and serve as a beacon for economic growth and sustainable development.