German group unveils enormous artificial sun for future renewable energy

24 Mar 2017

The Synlight array. Image: DLR

German researchers have declared ‘Let there be light!’, with the turning on of the world’s largest artificial sun to produce environmentally friendly fuels.

In the town of Jülich in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a new research project is shining a light on the future of renewable energy, quite literally.

Yesterday (23 March) researchers switched on the world’s largest artificial sun called Synlight, with the intention of using it to develop production processes for solar fuels, including hydrogen.

At three storeys in height, Synlight consists of 140 xenon short-arc lamps, pumping out 350kW of energy. The array will generate solar radiation on a scale that would be 10,000 times that experienced on the Earth’s surface.

All of this energy can then be focused on one exact point – measuring just 20 sq cm – which is capable of generating as much as 3,000 degrees Celsius, in heat that will be crucial to the manufacture of hydrogen fuel.

While electric vehicles are considered the method of propulsion to which we should aspire to replace fossil fuels, there has been significant interest in using hydrogen as an alternative, as it is completely renewable and emits nothing but water vapour.

Synlight maintenance

Technicians working on the Synlight array. Image: DLR

Growth of hydrogen fuels

To make the fuel, hydrogen needs to be split from oxygen in water and then harvested. This process, however, takes considerable amounts of energy.

While vast solar farms are considered one solution to this issue, problems arise – at least within central Europe – where sunlight can be irregular. This is where Synlight comes in.

So far, companies such as Toyota have been the only ones to invest significantly in hydrogen fuel cars (its Mirai model is one example), but the numbers sold remain low.

This latest achievement from the DLR Institute of Solar Research builds upon work it completed several years ago that created hydrogen fuel from solar radiation, albeit on a small, laboratory scale.

“Renewable energies will be the mainstay of global power supply in the future,” said DLR executive board member Karsten Lemmer, emphasising the relevance of intensive research into alternative energy production.

“Fuels, propellants and combustibles acquired using solar power offer immense potential for long-term storage and the production of chemical raw materials, and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Synlight will enhance our research in this field.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic