Hot new projects part 3: taking SolarGas to north west Australia

We’re helping remote industry look forward to more power with fewer emissions, thanks to the sun.

This is our third post in the ‘Hot new projects’ series, where we’ve been featuring recently announced CSIRO-led projects funded by the Australian Solar Institute (now part of ARENA).

In the north west of Australia mining activity is expanding very rapidly. Often it’s happening in remote areas – in towns like Nullagine, which is as far away from the nearest city as London is from Warsaw. Large mining operations need a lot of power, and since many are in places with no connection to the electricity grid they have traditionally relied on what power they can generate from diesel or gas.

While today’s power sources like diesel engines and simple gas turbines are cost effective, they are not environmentally sustainable. Transporting the fuel to remote areas not only increases the cost, but also increases the carbon footprint of the fuel.

Many mines are located where there's abundant solar energy. We're hoping to put some of it to use. [Image: Norwich Park Mine via AFR]

Many mines are located where there’s abundant solar energy. We’re hoping to put some of it to use. [Image: Norwich Park Mine via AFR]

To help out, CSIRO and our partners are investigating ways to make this power generation more environmentally sustainable, and we’re using the region’s most abundant natural resource – sunlight.

In this project, CSIRO and our partner GE will be designing a new gas-powered remote power station, suited to north west Australian conditions, where the natural gas gets a renewable energy ‘boost’ before it goes to the turbine. This boost happens in a solar-driven chemical reaction that upgrades the natural gas into a product called syngas. This solar-enhanced syngas, which we call SolarGas™, contains 25% more energy than the original gas – all of which has come from the heat of the sun. We walked through the process (and showed you photos of our test facility with its field of focusing mirrors) in an earlier blog post SolarGas: what’s it all about?

A solar field like this one at CSIRO in Newcastle can add energy from the sun to natural gas. This could help remote towns and outback mines save money and reduce emissions.

A solar field like this one at CSIRO in Newcastle can add energy from the sun to natural gas. This could help remote towns and outback mines save money and reduce emissions.

The sun-enhanced gas now passes to the turbine as usual, where it creates electricity. The ‘waste’ heat from this process is then harnessed to power a second turbine – a steam turbine – which creates extra electricity.

This two-turbine daisy chain, known as a combined cycle power station, is already frequently used for electricity generation. Our design will add the solar stage in the most efficient way, and model the system to see how it performs and what it’ll cost. We expect that adding solar will reduce overall cost, as well as lowering emissions.

The project will be the first time that a combined cycle power station is integrated with the SolarGas™ process in a detailed model. We hope this project will provide a stepping stone to the construction of demonstration plants in the Australian Outback.

The project, worth $700,000, will utilise CSIRO expertise in solar thermal technology and solar syngas reactors in partnership with world leaders in power station technology, GE Australia and the GE Global Research Centre in the United States.

You can read an interview with the project leader, CSIRO’s Robbie McNaughton, in the January issue of the Pilbara Echo.

The ultimate result of this work will be the use of less fossil fuel, for more power, with reduced emissions. That’s good for industry, and good for the environment!