See tomorrow’s scientists in battle today

Image courtesy of Science and Engineering Challenge (with permission)

To reign as the national champions of the Science and Engineering Challenge, one of eight schools will have to excel today at a whole lot of different competitive tasks. Will they be designing and building the most rugged Martian Rover, the strongest and lightest bridge, the furthest reaching catapult, the most manoeuvrable airship, or something even more challenging? The precise line-up of activities is a closely guarded secret – but only for another hour or so, when the national finals begin in Geelong.

Right now, the finalists are limbering up their prefrontal cortices in preparation for battle – and this year, you can watch the competition in real-time. Tune into the Live Video Webcast at 9.20 am (Australian Eastern Daylight Savings time) for the introduction, and 2 pm for the nail-biting grand finale.

The Science and Engineering Challenge is a program run from the University of Newcastle with support from Australian Rotary Districts and other sponsors. It aims to show school students that science and engineering are about creativity, problem solving and team work – and it has been shown to encourage students to continue with studies in science and mathematics.

CSIRO Energy Technology has often been a proud supporter of our local events and we wish the competitors well in this year’s final. Go teams!

Solar exposures

This photo shows CSIRO’s Solar Field 2, a one megawatt-thermal solar central receiver system, in operation at CSIRO Energy Centre, Newcastle.

Click on an icon below to download the image as a desktop wallpaper for your screen size.

New wind turbine for Newcastle site

The winds of change have passed over our site (yes, I do bad wind power puns too). In August a new wind turbine was installed and we’re pleased to report it’s been working well and is supplying power to our buildings.

As has been mentioned before on the blog, our original turbines supplied electricity to CSIRO Energy Technology here in Newcastle for several years despite having had a bit of an (ahem) turbulent run. Installed when the site was first developed in 2003, the three 20 kW units endured a run of bad luck including two separate lightning strikes, mechanical problems, and changes to the supplier’s market support which was moved from Australia to a location 17000 kilometres away.

Site photo from 2007 showing the three original wind turbines

This is what lightning can do to a turbine blade

The northernmost turbine was removed in 2010 to make way for Solar Field 2. The remaining two were removed from their poles last year awaiting repair.

After consultation and much research CSIRO decided the best way forward was to change to a completely new turbine, which was installed on 9 August.

Our new turbine during installation

The new 5 kW unit has been installed on one of the existing footings and is mounted on a hydraulic tilt pole that’ll make maintenance a breeze (ba-boom). We’ve also been able to engage one of the several wind power companies that exist now and have solid track records and local backing.

The new turbine was up and running just in time to make use of the windy weather we had the following weekend (which of course, as we love to point out on this blog, gets its power from the sun).

Wind turbine power output over 7 days, showing moment it was brought on-grid

Our new wind turbine isn’t just useful for helping power our building. It’s also part of an experiment carried out by our Smart Grid group. They use it, and all the other on-site generators (such as our many solar PV systems and our two gas microturbines), to investigate grid stability, distributed generation and intermittency management – in other words, how to make sure a region can have a constant, reliable energy supply, even when it’s coming from multiple varying sources.

I’m glad to see the new turbine up and running. When it comes to wind power, we’re huge fans.


Addendum (1.11.2012): since publishing this post I’ve been reminded by others that the three ‘original’ turbines in the photo were actually the second lot to be installed, not the first. Before them came a different set, installed by a different company, that experienced problems in a storm not long after the site opened. The supplier went out of business and was unable to maintain the turbines, which we subsequently replaced with the three shown at the top of this post.

One of the main factors leading to these problems has been that the wind market has become polarised into either supplying small units of 1 to 5 kW, or big ones of 1 to 10 MW. Our size preference of about 20 kW is in the middle – an area that’s less robustly covered by the market. This has contributed to our decision to size our newest turbine at 5 kW.

Find us in the latest issue of The Helix!

The Helix is a science magazine produced by CSIRO’s Double Helix Science Club, and it’s hugely popular with primary and high school students. And why wouldn’t it be, when it’s filled with stories like those from the latest issue:

  • The species of shrimp that’s strong enough to punch through aquarium glass
  • How scientists can tell how old a person is from their smell
  • The exploration of Antarctica, what causes the Aurora Australis, which dinosaurs used to roam the southern continent, and whether you can surf the net in Antarctica

… and, this month, a short piece about our SolarGas research here at Newcastle. There’s also a solar hexaflexagon on the back cover that’s ready to be cut out and assembled and flexed and flexed and flexed (and flexed – it’s addictive).

You can track down a copy of The Helix in newsagents or by joining the Double Helix Science Club.

Solar fields a focus of new documentary

Dick Smith hams it up for the camera near a heliostat in CSIRO Solar Field 2

Our solar fields always have lots of light, a few monitoring cameras and plenty of action – but a documentary crew visiting our research site recently brought a completely different kind of lights-camera-action to the fray.

Entrepreneur Dick Smith stopped by as part of a documentary he’s making on Australia’s energy future. While he was here he had a chance to chat to experts about the future of solar energy and test drive our new electric vehicle.

Visit this gallery on CSIRO’s Facebook page for more pictures and information.

Solar flair

Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke in a scene from the sci-fi movie Gattaca. It was filmed at a commercial solar thermal power station in California.

Links are for general interest and don’t imply endorsement from CSIRO.

100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 5

To celebrate our 100th blog post, we’ve put together (in no particular order) a list of 100 things you may not know about solar research at CSIRO. In this final section: some blasts from the past, some sports and some reports, and at the end we get a bit meta.

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Members of the CSIRO Solar Thermal team pose with Prime Minister Gillard in front of Solar Field 2 during its opening ceremony.

  1. Within the solar team we have people with backgrounds in Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Software Engineering and Chemical Engineering. (There’s a bit of Paper Engineering, too.)
  2. CSIRO solar scientist Professor Andrew Holmes was awarded a Royal Medal this year for his contributions to technologies including organic solar cells.
  3. Research scientist Jacek Jasieniak has just returned from spending a year in the US as a Fullbright Fellow, where he worked with Nobel laureate Professor Alan Heeger on increasing the efficiency of organic photovoltaic cells. Dr Jasieniak is also a former ‘Fresh science’ winner and the subject of a news article titled ‘Aussie Scientists Have Created Printable Frickin’ Lasers’.
  4. Some of our solar team mentor school children in science and engineering through the Scientists in Schools program.
  5. One of CSIRO’s solar engineers is former world champion in a solar-powered sport.

VPS / grid

  1. Twenty locations in the Hunter Region, including residential houses and council sites with rooftop photovoltaics, were involved in CSIRO / LMCC’s Virtual Power Station trial project. Each participating household used a web interface to track their solar panel performance and to see the performance of the whole VPS network.
  2. A CSIRO report has shown that Australia’s energy supply can remain stable and reliable even if a large percentage comes from solar energy or other intermittent sources. The solar intermittency can be managed by increasing grid flexibility and considering options such as energy storage and load control (i.e. switching things on or off, or turning them down for a short time).


  1. Australia’s first reported domestic solar hot water heater was designed and made by CSIRO in 1941.
  2. CSIRO made many improvements to flat-plate solar hot water collectors in the 1980s. Researchers used a 14 kW solar simulator made of mercury-iodide lamps for testing purposes.
  3. A CSIRO / University of Wollongong / NCC pilot study recently discovered that many solar hot water system owners in Australia could ‘supercharge’ their systems by making a few easy changes.

    This photo is from a book called ‘CSIRO Research for Australia: 2 – Energy’, circa 1986

  4. CSIRO has had several projects investigating hydrogen production using solar energy, from the fashionable 80s (above) through to the present day.
  5. All of CSIRO’s solar research papers can be found in the online Research Publications Repository.
  6. The CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle has had many visitors including energy ministers or staffers from several different countries, documentary makers including the Discovery Channel and Dick Smith, and thousands of members of the public.

 The blog

  1. Solar@CSIRO was CSIRO’s first blog. Others have followed.
  2. The solar blog has been viewed from 110 countries (and counting).

    The solar blog has been viewed from 110 countries. Hey Greenlanders, come visit us – it’d make our day.

  3. Interesting search terms that have taken people to this blog include ‘solat power’ [sic], ‘photovoltaic cells fancy dress’, ‘solar power puns’, and the slightly surreal ‘how much does a hang glider cost’.
  4. Want to make sure you don’t miss out on the latest news about our energy research? You can subscribe to this blog to be emailed updates – or, for all our energy research, sign up to receive CSIRO’s energy research newsletter ‘Spark’. If you like your media more ‘multi’, you can also subscribe to CSIRO’s podcast and vodcast for general news and features.

100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 4

To celebrate our 100th blog post, we’ve put together (in no particular order) a list of 100 things you may not know about solar research at CSIRO. Today we talk about solar cooling research, our on-site generation from solar power, and the raw material itself: sunlight.

◊  ◊  ◊

Solar cooling

  1. CSIRO solar cooling technology can provide air conditioning, heating and hot water to a building – all from the low-temperature energy gathered by conventional solar hot water panels.
  2. CSIRO’s two-room ‘balanced ambient calorimeter’can replicate the weather conditions of different locations all around the world. This lets us test how conventional or solar air conditioners would perform in cities or countries with different patterns of temperature and humidity.

    An experiment you can walk inside: our two-room balanced ambient calorimeter

  3. The balanced ambient calorimeter can test solar air conditioners ‘on sun’ (using real solar heat), and can even replicate the effects of different building materials (like insulation) and different heat sources (like people or computers).
  4. CSIRO’s commercial-scale solar cooling technology has been installed at the Hamilton TAFE. It provides space cooling, space heating and hot water for teaching-kitchens, the campus function room, and office spaces.

Solar on site

  1. There are over 100 kW of solar photovoltaic panels generating electricity for the Newcastle site. Three different varieties are represented: monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon and dye-sensitised cells.
  2. The dye sensitised array on our building was the first commercial installation of DSCs in the world.

    Stained glass window: our dye sensitised cell array from the outside (left) and inside (right).

  3. The sun helps us reduce our use of air conditioning. The stairwells in our office building act like ‘solar chimneys’ that draw a natural flow of fresh, cool air in from the central gardens and through the building.
  4. The sun helps us save on lighting costs. White boards outside the windows called ‘light shelves’ reflect diffuse light into the office, allowing the fluorescent lights to dim and save power.
  5. Our on-site generation, which includes our solar panels, saves us a lot of CO2 emissions every year – but we save five times as much as that again due to our energy-efficient building features. It just goes to show that prevention really is better than cure.


  1. In the 12 months to date, each square meter on our site has received about 5.8 gigajoules of solar energy. That’s equal to the amount of energy released by burning a barrel of oil. Over our whole Newcastle site, that adds up to about 45,000 barrels of oil equivalent.
  2. The best sites in Australia can receive over 9 gigajoules of solar energy per square metre each year. That’s about one and a half times what we get in Newcastle – which in turn is about one and a half times as much sunlight as the best solar locations in Germany.
  3. The sun doesn’t simply rise in the east and set in the west. At our Newcastle site in summer the sun rises 29 degrees south of east.

    Not really a robot playing golf.

  4. We measure how much solar energy we get using a device that looks like a golf-playing robot.
  5. How do you know just how sunny your part of Australia is? CSIRO’s Marine and Atmospheric Research division is working on it. They’re collaborating with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and NREL in the US to make Australia’s first comprehensive solar radiation data set.

100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 3

To celebrate our 100th blog post, we’ve put together (in no particular order) a list of 100 things you may not know about solar research at CSIRO. Today we shine a light on our photovoltaics research and what it has to do with the planet Pluto, a bottle of sunscreen, a human hair, soccer balls, window cleaners, robots and pool parties.

◊  ◊  ◊

  1. The Photovoltaics (PV) Group at the CSIRO Energy Centre was the first group in Australia to fabricate an organic solar device as large as 100 cm2.
  2. The ‘glovebox’ in our lab is where we make new organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells. Instead of normal air, it’s full of pure nitrogen because OPV cells are sensitive to air and moisture until sealed.
  3. Our cryopump – a piece of equipment in the OPV glove box – runs at temperatures of just 11 Kelvin (-262°C). This is colder than the surface of Pluto. It operates an evaporator that maintains a vacuum of up to 10-7 Pa, which is about the same as the air pressure on the near side of the moon.
  4. Organic solar cells contain squillions of ultra-awesome, soccer ball-shaped buckminsterfullerene molecules.
  5. Dye-sensitised solar cells (DSCs) can be ‘printed’ like you’d screen print a t-shirt. Samples we’ve made on site for special occasions have featured the CSIRO logo, Channel ten logo and the title of this blog!
  6. We can make dye-sensitised cells in a range of colours, including red, green, blue, purple and orange. This gives them a lot of interesting architectural possibilities.
  7. The semiconductor in our DSCs is titanium dioxide, which is a substance found in many household objects like white paint, sunscreen and toothpaste. We use nanoparticles of titanium dioxide that measure about 20 nanometres across.
  8. Thin-film DSCs only need an active layer 10 micrometres thick. That’s only a sixth of the width of a human hair.
  9. Think that’s thin? Well, the active layer in organic solar cells is only 300 nanometres thick – that’s one two-hundredth the width of a strand of hair.
  10. Once a photon hits a DSC it only takes one femtosecond (a quadrillionth of a second) for it to generate an electron – but it takes a million times longer for the electron to make it out of the device and into the wires.
  11. We measure the surface profile of organic and dye-sensitised solar cells using a machine that drags a very fine needle over the surface – just like a record player but more accurate.
  12. Solar PV scientist Dr Greg Wilson can make working solar cells out of blueberries and orange juice.
  13. If you think cleaning windows is tedious work, have a look at how we have to clean glass before we attach an organic solar cell to it. First we wash it in water, then detergent, then give it an acetone rinse, then an isopropanol rinse, and then blast it with plasma to burn off any remaining gunk. It takes about two and a half hours to clean a square a sixth the size of an iPhone screen.

    The temperature and humidity readout in our dry-lab, seen through a dye-sensitised solar cell screen printed in the shape of the CSIRO logo.

  14. Our specialist dry-lab facility is maintained at a very low humidity. The air in it contains less than a teaspoon of water – compared to a normal room of the same size which would have about two cups of water in the air.
  15. On any given day our PV team plays with a lot of cool gizmos in the lab, including laser cutters, robot printers, ultrasonic waves (both for cleaning and soldering), plasma cleaners, sandblasters (for making holes in ceramics), ultra-high vacuums, and ultra-low temperatures.
  16. A microwave oven – the type you heat your lunch in – can also be used to prepare the dyes used in our solar cells. It can speed up the chemical reactions from five hours to five minutes.
  17. Solar panel performance can change with temperature, sunlight spectrum, and other factors. CSIRO’s new outdoor PV testing facility will be able to accurately measure these effects for many different types of PV.
  18. In addition to the many kilowatts of PV generating electricity for our site, we also have about a dozen test modules on the roof of our lab building. Each one generates about 36,000 data sets every year – which lucky Ben in the PV group looks so very much forward to analysing.
  19. We’re establishing a new laboratory at the Energy Centre for very accurate measurements of PV efficiency. When it’s completed, it’ll be one of the most accurate labs of its kind in the world.
  20. At the Energy Centre, even our computing can be clean and green. Some of our solar modelling is done using CSIRO’s GPU computer cluster, which is ranked 15th in the world for energy-efficient supercomputers.
  21. At CSIRO, our pool parties are strictly in the name of science. We recently tested some floating solar cells for a client in an ‘outdoor open-air aqueous containment device’ (i.e. a pool). Deckchairs were not included.
  22. Thanks to the xenon ‘solar simulators’ in our PV lab, our science team has access to the best quality indoor tans any geek could wish for. (Important safety note: lab equipment not actually used for tanning purposes.)
  23. In the PV group we collaborate with researchers in many different countries, including China, Denmark, Germany, India, Israel, Singapore, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 2

To celebrate our 100th blog post, we’ve put together (in no particular order) a list of 100 things you may not know about solar research at CSIRO. Today: more about our high-temperature solar thermal fields including why we’re putting helicopter parts on our solar tower, and the strange animals and messages that occasionally crop up in our heliostat fields.

◊  ◊  ◊

  1. We call our heliostat design the ‘Spider’ due to its eight radial struts holding the mirror at the correct curvature. The design provides strength, rigidity and accuracy of focus.
  2. The mirrors are glued to the heliostat frames with the same material used in the manufacture of buses and caravans.
  3. The bonding glue on the mirrors is strong enough to withstand winds of over 200 km/hr – much higher than even the most extreme once-per-hundred-year wind conditions for the site.
  4. When each new heliostat is made we measure the curvature of the mirror surface at over 500 separate points to an accuracy of 10 millionths of a metre. Only if it meets our standards for focusing accuracy do we then install it in the field.
  5. We have used a ‘hail gun’ to test heliostats against hailstone impact. They passed.
  6. Each heliostat and its components are held together with 55 bolts – for a total 24,805 bolts in Solar Field 2 alone.
  7. The footings for the heliostats on the edges of the field are bigger than those in the middle. This is because the outermost heliostats will be exposed to higher winds than the sheltered, innermost ones.

    We made our heliostats show off for New Year’s Day

  8. Solar Field 2’s mirrors have been used to spell out things like our organisation’s name, the year, and the Earth Hour logo. Despite journalists’ suggestions, we have never used them to spell ‘Don’t forget the milk’.
  9. Also despite journalists’ suggestions, the solar fields cannot be used as a ‘death ray’. This is because the combined reflections from the heliostats can’t be focussed anywhere but the top of our tower. (Rest easy, suburb of Mayfield; you remain safe.)
  10. Companies and research institutions from other countries have travelled to Australia to conduct experiments using CSIRO’s solar fields.
  11. There are unofficial reports that one of our solar engineers has personally signed several singe marks he’s left on the tower during experiments. His identity shall be kept anonymous for his own protection.
  12. CSIRO used to be home to several sets of solar troughs, but these were removed in 2010 to make way for the much larger Solar Field 2.
  13. The main experiment on Solar Field 2 is our Solar Air Turbine project. This uses just air and sunshine to generate electricity.
  14. The turbine is a modified helicopter engine, and is expected to be installed in the next few months.
  15. When the Solar Field 2 air turbine is fully operational, it’ll deliver about 150 kW of electricity to our site during the sunny hours of the day. Anything we don’t use ourselves can be sold on to the grid.
  16. Planning is under way for a thermal storage system to be added to Solar Field 2, making it able to store thermal energy for use after sundown.
  17. The Solar Field 2 tower is capable of supporting 15 tonnes – just in case we want to install some hefty experimental gear up there.
  18. Our tower and heliostats were manufactured locally, by a company on the NSW Central Coast.
  19. A CSIRO report has estimated that the cost of electricity from solar thermal power stations could drop to 13.5 c/kWh by 2020, with prices as low as 10 c/kWh technically feasible.
  20. CSIRO’s high temp materials laboratory in Newcastle can test new molten salt mixtures at temperatures up to 1000°C. Molten salts are used for storing solar thermal energy and have enabled the Gemasolar plant in Spain to generate energy 24 hours a day.
  21. SolarGas, which we make in Solar Field 1, contains 20% solar energy.
  22. This dish at Lucas Heights was used for solar thermal experiments before the construction of our Newcastle solar fields.

  23. Before CSIRO built its solar towers, we used a dish to carry out high-temperature solar thermal experiments. The dish was located at CSIRO’s Lucas Heights site.
  24. Our current tower-based solar receivers are ‘cavity receivers’ – that is, the area that’s heated up is inside a cavity. This means they have less heat loss compared to ‘external receivers’ such as used by other types of solar tower.
  25. For most of our experiments, we have more power available from the heliostats than is required. An automatic control system chooses which heliostats to use on the target and puts the spare ones in ‘stand-by’ positions close to (but missing) the receiver, where they sometimes make visible halos in the air. Stand-by heliostats can be brought on-sun if light cloud or haze develops and we need to maintain power levels.

    Corellas in Solar Field 1

  26. It’s cool to stand in an operating solar field – literally. The heliostats reflect most of the heat that would otherwise reach the ground.
  27. There’s a thriving local ecosystem in and around our solar fields. Regular visitors include lots of birds – magpies, corellas, herons, hawks, swamp hens and more – as well as less-welcome visitors like hares (that chew exposed cables) and the occasional reptile.


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