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ustralia receives more solar ical ‘reforming’ reaction. Methane and steam go

These mirrors in the Australian landscape focus the
radiation per square metre, on in, energy and a catalyst are added; the resulting Sun’s rays to power the production of ‘SolarGas’.
average, than any other continent. gas [carbon monoxide and hydrogen] is called
Although turning this radiation into syngas in the industry — we call it SolarGas. 3 metres off the ground. The total ground area
electricity is one option, another is This gas has 26% more energy per kilogram is 40ǂ40 metres, but that is because of our
finding ways to make use of its heat. We than methane — it is solar energy embedded site constraints — it doesn’t necessarily rep-
spoke to Australian proponents of two in chemical bonds. So the plant improves the resent the ideal module size. So I don’t want
very different solar-thermal systems, energy value of the gas, and provides a precur- to make a big deal of the specific dimensions.
both rather confusingly known as solar sor for other energy products, such as liquid It will produce up to 250 kilowatts of electric-
towers: Roger Davey, executive chairman fuels. We could link this process with carbon ity. However, this is a research-size system. We
and chief executive of EnviroMission, burial so that the carbon dioxide from the designed this tower to represent a single mod-
based in Melbourne; and Wes Stein, from fossil-fuel component was sequestered. ule that could be replicated again and again to
the Energy Technology Division of the make it up to any desired capacity.
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial How big is your solar tower?
Research Organisation, based in Newcastle. RD: The original concept design made it 1 kilo- How does your system fit into the
metre high and 7 kilometres in diameter, but existing energy infrastructure?
How does your solar-thermal we have developed new technologies that will RD: It operates as a power plant and feeds into
project work? make it substantially smaller and more power- the normal electricity grid.
Roger Davey: In our solar tower, solar radia- ful. A 50-megawatt demonstration plant will WS: The gas can be used in gas turbines to
tion is used to heat the air captured under a be built at Tapio Station, about 22 kilometres make electricity or we can turn it into liquid
large greenhouse. The roof of the greenhouse northeast of Mildura in New South Wales. This transport fuels. We are investigating the use of
is sloped towards the centre, where there are is not necessarily the optimum size, but it is the existing gas pipelines to transport SolarGas.
turbines and a very tall tower that creates a optimum size to build in the first instance to One idea is to do the solar-reforming reaction
chimney effect. Hot air rises up and out of the show the robustness of the technology. The out in the desert region, where many gas pipe-
tower, rushing through turbines at the base of front-end engineering and design are currently lines originate, putting the SolarGas into the
the tower to produce power. under way, and it would be premature of me to pipeline and transporting it downstream. We
Wes Stein: We have 200 small mirrors that talk heights and sizes now, and then alter them can have all the convenience of gas but with all
track the Sun during the day and concentrate its in a week’s time. the benefits of solar energy.
rays onto a single point on the tower. This pro- WS: The tower reactor is 15 metres above the SolarGas can make liquid transport fuels and
vides temperatures hot enough to drive a chem- mirrors, and the tops of the mirrors are about also fertilizer. After power plants, transport
©2006 Nature Publishing Group

plant with the optimum output, incorporat-


ing the new technologies. I could guess, but
it’s better to be sure than to mislead.
WS: This solar tower has cost us Aus$1.5 mil- “We have a
“We can use
lion to build. But we think that if we apply the system that
SolarGas in a same learning curve that turbines have expe- could operate
broad range rienced over the past 15–20 years, this same
system would cost us around Aus$300,000 to 24 hours a day,
of sectors,
build in the future. 7 days a week,
not just
365 days a
electricity.” What are your advantages over rival
solar technologies? year.”
— Wes Stein
RD: We can guarantee output to meet the — Roger Davey
demand, just like coal-fired plants.
WS: The advantages are that we can use Solar-
Gas in a broader range of sectors, not just
and agriculture are the biggest greenhouse-gas electricity; the very-low-cost potential; and don’t make any noise sitting on top of a roof,
emitters in Australia, so it gives us an opportu- the fact that it overcomes the transport and and they can be made to look good on build-
nity to target more than electricity. storage issues of solar energy. ings. They are still very expensive, but they
come in small chunks. It is much easier for
How are you trying to improve the Solar thermal has been around for a investors to go with that concept than with a
technology? while — why has it not caught on? one-off, large, solar-thermal power station. It’s
RD: We can now create far greater heat under RD: I think it has caught on. That’s why we’re only now, as a result of initiatives and incen-
the collector roof. It captures more heat here. tives around the world, that solar-thermal
and retains more heat — it’s a bit like double- WS: One of the difficulties it has had is the technology is starting to take off globally.
glazing. concept that it has to be built large for cost
We now also have a method of storing heat reductions to occur. It’s one thing to build a What stops power companies from
in brine ponds, so that on days of lower solar system at the small demonstration level and making big investments in solar thermal?
radiation we can bring in that stored heat to enthuse everyone with that, and then say ‘now RD: Power companies have investments in
create the temperatures we need. That means I need to build 100,000 of these to be cost- other assets, don’t they?
we have a system that could operate 24 hours a effective in a 50-megawatt system’. I think the WS: Purely cost. At the end of the day, it comes
day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. jump from that small to large scale has been down to cost of the technology.
WS: We believe cost reductions will come too much for investors to handle, even though
from improving the efficiency of the reac- the modelling and calculations have always How much of Australia’s electricity
tion and reducing the cost of the mirror field shown that it would be cost-effective. needs could solar thermal provide in
through mass production. We have two areas 20 years — or in 50?
of research we are working on. One is to reduce Worldwide, investment in solar-thermal RD: We plan to develop approximately
the reaction temperature to around 550 °C research is fairly low; why do you think 2,100 megawatts of installed capacity by 2020.
[from around 800 °C]. That greatly reduces the that is? By 2030, we plan to have installed in excess
capital costs of the mirror field, because fewer RD: If you take the solar tower as an example, of 6,500 megawatts of power, which would be
mirrors are required. We are using a novel the original design had to be big to produce the equivalent of the electricity usage of about

arrangement of membranes to allow a 10 million households based on cur-
much lower reaction temperature. We rent energy use.
are in the middle of a patent applica- WS: I see no reason why, by 2050, solar
tion, so that’s all I can say at present. energy couldn’t be supplying at least
The second concept uses carbon 25% of Australia’s energy mix.
dioxide as the reforming agent rather
than steam, so we would be using a Is your technology really only
waste stream. Coal-seam methane is a suitable for countries with big,
rapidly growing resource in Australia. empty deserts?
Methane from coal seams comes out RD: No. Our solar tower operates on
with a fair amount of CO2. Normally, temperature differentiation — the
that CO2 is stripped off before the gas creation of an environment with
goes into the downstream pipeline strong differentiation to ambient tem-
— so we would make use of that dis- perature will regulate where develop-
carded CO2. But we need to develop ment is able to occur. Unfortunately,
new catalysts for that reaction. Artist’s impression of EnviroMission’s solar tower, which will big, empty deserts do not serve elec-
harness the Sun’s heat to generate electricity. tricity grids and have inherent supply-
How much does it cost? chain issues.
RD: The original-concept 200-megawatt plant enough power to make enough money to pay WS: Sensibly, yes. Technically, there is no rea-
would have cost around Aus$800 million for the capital costs. But with the additional son why you can’t do it in lower solar regions
(US$610 million). The 50-megawatt plant will technology we have added, we have created far but the cost will be higher. I’m not advocating
be substantially less, owing to a reduction in more power out of a smaller plant. solar being a single solution for all Australia’s
the structural dimensions, with final costings WS: It is because of the difficulty investors energy needs. Theoretically it could be, but
anticipated at the completion of the front-end have in biting off big chunks compared with practically I don’t think that will happen. ■
engineering and design. We are working on the easier task of biting off small chunks. Photo- Carina Dennis is Nature’s Australasian
the engineering of the optimally sized power voltaics are very sexy — they don’t move, they correspondent.
©2006 Nature Publishing Group