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Sunlight and natural gas in new energy source

CSIRO : 21 October, 2002  (Technical Article)
CSIRO scientists have combined solar energy and natural gas in a novel process capable of producing large-scale energy to power Australia's future industrial and domestic needs.
The innovative combination of solar thermal and natural gas has won a 2002 Institution of Engineers Australia Award in Engineering Excellence (Environmental category) for CSIRO Energy Technology.

The process combines the energy from sunlight with the energy in natural gas to produce fuels that can be used to generate electricity in gas turbines or fuel cells.

Project Leader Dr Greg Duffy says 'Our research has proven that this technology will work. The more backing we receive from acknowledged experts, the easier it will be to persuade industry to implement the technology.'

The center piece of the project is a solar thermal concentrating dish, designed and constructed by Solar Systems Pty Ltd. Arrays of mirrors focus the sun's rays onto a reactor to create steam. The steam in turn reacts with methane (natural gas) to produce a high energy gas (syngas), with up to 40 per cent of its energy content being embodied solar energy.

The challenges that faced CSIRO in this project were mechanical and chemical engineering related, Dr Duffy says. 'The dish had to be modified significantly, both for optimal solar-thermal performance and for safety in high winds.

'The reactor had to be scaled to enable it to match the solar delivery from the dish and the flow rates of gas and water. The reactor also had to sit at the focus of the dish and move with it as it tracked the sun.

'The reactor has successfully accommodated a wide range of conditions and consistently produces a high quality syngas.'

The technology will make use of two of Australia's most abundant energy resources - sunlight and natural gas. It can produce syngas or hydrogen, both of which are suitable for electricity generation. Syngas can also be mixed with natural gas and delivered via the existing pipeline for use in conventional gas appliances.

If hydrogen is produced, the system creates the opportunity to separate the carbon dioxide, so it can be safely re-buried underground. This would greatly reduce greenhouse emissions from power generation.

'We are now working on bringing together interested parties to demonstrate the technology at an industrial scale,' said Dr Adrian Williams, Chief of CSIRO Energy Technology.

'This technology provides the energy resource industry with a path to greater sustainability with significantly reduced greenhouse emissions per unit of energy generated.'
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