Welcome to the blogPosted: Tuesday, 15th February, 2011
Welcome to the Solar @ CSIRO blog. On this site, scientists will be posting updates on solar research at the CSIRO Division of Energy Technology in Newcastle, Australia. We’re active in developing two different types of solar technology: advanced photovoltaics, and concentrated solar thermal energy systems.
If you’re not familiar with these two technologies, a quick introduction is below. If you want more detailed explanations, as well as links to further information on our website, you can find them in the pages ‘About photovoltaics’ and ‘About solar thermal energy’ via the menu bar at the top of the page.
First, a brief explanation of concentrated solar thermal energy. Thermal means that the only part of the sunlight we’re interested in is its heat. When you dry your washing on the line, or use a solar hot water system, you’re using solar thermal energy. But we can achieve much more if we first concentrate the energy by using some kind of reflector, like a mirrored dish or trough, to focus the sunlight onto a smaller area. This vastly increases the temperature achievable – as you’ll know if you’ve ever used a magnifying glass in the sun to melt something. With the right number of focusing mirrors, the sunlight can be turned from something merely capable of drying clothes, to something able to boil water to run a large steam turbine that powers a town. The number of mirrors determines how much heat can be collected, and the concentration influences the temperature.
This is a different type of technology to the other form of solar power – photovoltaic. Photovoltaic (PV) panels don’t make any use of the sun’s heat; instead they use the energy from the visible and ultraviolet frequencies, which is converted directly into electricity. CSIRO’s advanced photovoltaic group is working to develop the solar panels of the future – what we call ‘third generation’ cells.
Both the photovoltaic and solar thermal groups have significant research facilities, as well as others planned or under construction. In the solar thermal group, we have our own concentrating facilities on which to run experiments. Solar Field 1 has nearly 200 mirrors that slowly rotate during the day to keep the sun focused on a point at the top of a tower. This can generate temperatures of over 1000°C, which is more than enough to melt an aluminium plate (as we’ve found out first-hand). We’re also constructing Solar Field 2 with a second, bigger field of mirrors and a new tower. Recent aerial photographs of our site can be seen at nearmap.com.
Check back at this blog over the next couple of months to hear more about what’s going on with our solar research at Newcastle.