Solar science, international science

Key researchers in our solar thermal team at CSIRO recently returned from the SolarPACES conference in Granada, Spain. It’s one of the biggest events on the solar thermal calendar, and it’s been growing rapidly in size over the last few years as the industry expands – this year’s event had more than 1000 participants. By all accounts it was a busy programme that gave everyone a chance to catch up with the latest research, discuss industry trends and reach some consensus on what the pressing issues are for the near future.

In the central receiver (or ‘solar power tower’) area, presentations were on topics ranging from heliostats (things like a new type of robot that can reduce the cost of cleaning mirrors; techniques for making heliostats more stable under high wind; and testing new reflective plastic/metal composites that may one day be an alternative to glass mirrors)  – to new types of energy storage (like storing heat in sand or rocks at very high temperatures) – to reports on solar power stations that are already operating (see the SolarPACES database here) and others that are in the planning stage.

One of the most eagerly anticipated talks was probably the presentation by Torresol Energy on the  Gemasolar power plant which started operating in May this year. It’s the first commercial ‘power tower’ plant that can operate 24 hours a day thanks to molten salt storage. The director of technology at Torresol gave an overview of the construction and commissioning process, and showed a month’s worth of data that demonstrated the plant’s ability to consistently deliver power to the grid in the peak evening usage times and through the night.

It’s a long trip from Newcastle to Granada and so our scientists and engineers made the most of their time in Spain by packing in some very busy work schedules. At the conference, Jin-Soo Kim presented some analysis we’ve done of our SolarGas reactor, and Robbie McNaughton showed some models we’ve done for integrating solar thermal energy into existing coal-fired power stations in Australia. (You last saw Jin-Soo and Robbie on the blog working at heights and meeting the prime minister.) After taking part in various extra meetings and task groups, they took the chance to visit other research organisations and solar thermal companies in different places – mainly to discuss ongoing research partnerships, but sometimes to do some solar-related sightseeing.

Mike Collins, who has also been shown on the blog high above the ground & with the PM, was at the conference as well. He took these photos during the SolarPACES technical tour of the aforementioned Gemasolar plant. (His travel was sponsored by the World Engineering Convention Young Engineers Programme, in which he participated as part of a team that won first prize – congratulations Mike!) The most striking impressions he got from visiting the plant in person? The forest-like effect you get when standing among the heliostats; the notable absence of the infrastructure that’s needed to bring in fuels like coal or gas; and the way it’s eerily quiet even when you’re standing right in the field, with only the occasional faint whirring of heliostat motors to be heard.

The solar receiver shines brightly on the top section of the 140 metre tall Gemasolar tower. The receiver, the narrow ‘neck’ section, can accept 120 MW of concentrated solar thermal energy. (Photo: M Collins.)

An image showing some of the receiver detail. (Photo: M Collins)

A visitor standing next to one of the 2650 heliostats demonstrates its scale. Each heliostat is made of 35 facets, giving it a total area of 115 m2. (Photo: M Collins)

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