100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 1

To celebrate our 100th blog post (did you see our custom solar cell?), we’ve put together (in no particular order) a list of 100 things you may not know about solar research at CSIRO. Today: our high-temperature solar fields, the connection they have with solar companies that were operating before Europeans settled Australia, some stories about stuff we’ve melted, and how a vacation student’s work is embodied in over 600 heliostats.

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  1. CSIRO’s two high-temperature solar tower facilities go by the practical and descriptive names of CSIRO Solar Field 1 and CSIRO Solar Field 2. Despite what you might think, they’re not necessarily the most unimaginative titles in solar research tower history.

CSIRO Solar Field 2

  1. Solar Field 1 was opened in 2005 and is primarily used for SolarGas research, and Solar Field 2, which will make electricity using an air turbine cycle, was opened in 2011.
  2. We also had several rows of solar parabolic concentrators or ‘solar troughs’. Four of these units were originally developed by ANU. Two additional units were later installed for testing on behalf of a client.
  3. The Energy Centre at Newcastle only opened in 2003, but concentrating solar thermal research at CSIRO goes back to the 1980s using small dish and trough units. Concentrating solar power itself goes back much further – the first commercial trough system was in Egypt in 1913, and operating systems were being exhibited as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries.

CSIRO Solar Field 1

  1. CSIRO Solar Field 2 is bigger than Field 1, and collects about two and a half times as much energy.
  2. Solar Field 2 has been designed to be ‘peaky’ – that is, the layout of the heliostats maximises the peak field output at the expense of the overall annual energy capture. This is to extend the field’s research capabilities.
  3. Our solar fields can have several different experiments mounted on the towers at any given time. Currently Solar Field 2 hosts an air turbine receiver, a SolarGas experiment, and a high-temperature testing rig.
  4. The two solar fields are most commonly used to run processes at temperatures from 800 to 1000°C.
  5. The highest temperature we’re aware of having generated was around 1700°C with Solar Field 1, when we melted a piece of ceramic. We don’t actually know what the maximum temperature we’d be able to reach is, as it would depend on the receiver material and conditions.
  6. There are 621 heliostats installed in total at the Newcastle site. Laid side by side, the mirrors would make a reflecting surface large enough to cover four tennis courts.

Half a dozen heliostats in Solar Field 1 melted a hole through this aluminium plate.

  1. Due to their excellent focusing, even a single CSIRO heliostat can generate temperatures high enough to melt aluminium – which has a melting point of 660°C.
  2. The reflectivity of our mirrors is about 92%. For comparison, the mirrors you have in your bathroom are likely to be about 84% reflective.
  3. Our mirrors use low-iron glass, which transmits more infra-red energy than normal glass. This makes the glass more see-through at wavelengths we can’t see – but which our solar receiver can use.
  4. Dust and dirt on the mirrors can reduce their reflectivity by a few percent. For our purposes we only need to clean them occasionally, usually just before experiments requiring ultra-high temperatures. That’s when lucky Brendo gets handed the mop and squeegee.
  5. When our solar fields are operating, the mirrors look like they’re standing still – but each heliostat is actually changing its orientation by a tiny amount several times a minute to keep up with the sun as it moves across the sky.
  6. The mirrors in our heliostats also look like they’re flat, but in reality each one is very slightly (and precisely) curved in a dish-like shape so as to focus the reflected light.
  7. Because the different mirrors in our solar fields have different distances from the receiver, they need to be built with different focal lengths. We have four different focal lengths for Solar Field 2 and five for Field 1.
  8. The company that supplies our mirrors has been making components for concentrating solar thermal systems for over 240 years – dating back to before Europeans first settled in Australia.
  9. A vacation student made integral contributions to the design and engineering of CSIRO’s heliostats. The results of his work are now present in over 600 heliostats. Vacation studentships are periodically advertised on CSIRO’s website here.
  10. Our heliostat frames are ‘steel origami’: the mirror support struts are made by folding laser-cut sheets of stainless steel. This simplifies assembly, keeps the structure strong and lightweight, and helps keep material and fabrication costs down.

    Luckily for Brendo, we only need to clean our mirrors occasionally.


One Comment on “100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 1”


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