Hooray! Three new CSIRO solar research projects funded (part 2)

The support the Australian Solar Institute (ASI) provides to solar research in Australia has meant it’s now possible for three new CSIRO solar research projects to go ahead. What are they, I hear you say? Glad you asked. In this three-part post I’ll share the project descriptions from the ASI website, followed by my own explaination.

Project 2: Solar hybrid fuels

ASI contribution: $1,585,853
Total project value: $3,917,350
Partners: Chevron, Orica, Colorado School of Mines, and a range of leading national and international researchers in the solar fuels area.
Summary: CSIRO will increase the efficiency of solar hybrid fossil fuels by developing and demonstrating new catalysts and membrane reactors to make the fuels at low temperatures compatible with conventional solar thermal storage. The product, known as syngas, will be suitable for electricity production in gas turbines and for making liquid transport fuels. The project also includes the assembly of a panel of national and international experts to formulate a Solar Fuels Roadmap for Australia.

Take a chill pill: working out how to carry out solar fuels reactions at lower temperatures – by which we mean below 800°C – could have benefits

Solar@CSIRO explains: I’ve written about SolarGas™ a few times before on the blog, so you know the basics: that we’re making it in Solar Field 1 by heating natural gas and steam to over 800°C using the power of the sun. At these temperatures the gas and steam react to form the product we call SolarGas, in a process that basically stores solar energy in a gas. Amongst the other uses of SolarGas, it’s possible to make diesel fuel from it – meaning one day your car could be running on fuel that got part of its energy (recently & renewably) from the sun.

One day your car could be running on fuel that got part of its energy (recently & renewably) from the sun.

Our SolarGas reactor can only function, obviously, during daytime. It’d be nice though to hook it up to a thermal storage system so that we could use stored solar heat to operate when there’s no sunshine. But the problem is that the current SolarGas process needs temperatures over 800°C, while commercial thermal storage fluids like molten nitrate salts start to break down once they are heated over 600°C.

One solution is to find thermal storage fluids that stay stable at higher temperatures. We and other organisations already have scientists working on that. But this project takes the alternative approach: finding ways to take the SolarGas process (and other similar solar-hybrid fossil fuel processes, e.g. using biomass, algae or brown coal instead of natural gas) and make them able to operate at lower temperatures. Hopefully, by working at the problem from both ends we’ll end up with a process and a storage fluid where the operating temperatures overlap.

It’d be nice to hook our SolarGas production process up to a thermal storage system so that we could use stored solar heat to operate 24 hours a day.

The issue is, though, that you can’t lower the temperature of SolarGas-like processes without the efficiency of the reaction also going down. That means although you might have 24 hour operation, you’d be getting a lot less bang for your buck (so to speak). But there’s a trick we have up our sleeve called a membrane reactor that might be the solution. It uses a thin metal membrane through which only hydrogen – which is part of the SolarGas product – can diffuse. If the hydrogen keeps getting removed through the membrane as soon as it’s produced in the reactor, more hydrogen keeps getting made to redress the balance, increasing the yield from the reaction again.

We’ll also need to make sure we have catalysts that can operate properly at these lower temperatures, and that’s another part of this project.

Ultimately it’ll lead to a plant being constructed to demonstrate this technology – possibly in Western Australia, where there is a heap of both solar energy and gas.

     

The other main stream of this project addresses important practical questions like: what types of solar fuels will be most suited to Australia’s needs? What are the potential economic benefits? Which areas of research are most critical? What’s the best strategy for bringing the technology to commercialisation?

The project addresses important questions like: What types of solar fuels will be most suited to Australia’s needs? What are the potential economic benefits? Which areas of research are most critical?

To answer these, we’ll be bringing together solar fuels experts from all over the world. This group – made up of industry members and research leaders – will be working with CSIRO and other stakeholders to create a ‘roadmap’ for solar fuels in Australia. The end product will be a public report that outlines all the major opportunities and barriers facing the commercialisation of solar fuels, and the environmental, social and economic outcomes of different commercialisation pathways.

In summary: it’s not only important to know how to do something – both in the sense of making a process work and making a project happen – but it’s also a good idea to know why you’re doing it – what the benefits are, both to the hip pocket and the environment. In this project we’re going to try and get answers from all angles on solar fuel technologies.

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Part 1 Part 3



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