Scientists develop first solar reactor that works at night

According to researchers, this new tool will be key to 100% clean energy production

Scientists develop first solar reactor that works at night

Researchers at the German Aerospace Center, experts in solar thermal power, successfully tested the CONTISOL reactor. The reactor is capable of creating solar fuel such as hydrogen and operates both day and night, because it is capable of storing thermal energy.

CONTISOL, instead of using fossil fuels to achieve the necessary heat energy to chemically separate hydrogen from water, gets its power from sunlight and it has a series of mirrors, which concentrates solar flux received.

The idea of solar energy fuels is to have zero carbon emissions without affecting the ozone layer, such as hydrogen that currently is used from natural gas.

Project scientists assessed that it was much more efficient to get 1,500 degrees Celsius -required for thermochemical reactions- from solar energy than any other type of energy like wind power. According to the Solar Power and Chemical Energy Systems research agency (SolarPaces), with solar energy there is an unlimited source for centuries without climatic consequences. The only problem they found was the availability of sunshine a day.

According to Justin Lapp, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maine, who previously worked for the German Aerospace Center, "solar reactors had the problem of what to do at night when there is not sunlight or even when the day was cloudy ".

According to the expert, when the temperature drops, the chemical reactions can be stopped or delayed, reducing the energy. Additionally, if it goes out at night, it cools and not only time is lost, but the next day it must start heating from scratch, which complicates the process.

However, now with CONTISOL it is possible to store enough energy during the day. Lapp explains that "the idea was to build 2 sets of CONTISOL reactors. One where sunlight can go directly to the chemical process. While the other is responsible for storing energy."

According to SolarPaces, when combining these two capabilities with a solar thermochemical reactor it would be "using the best of both worlds": stable temperatures available at all times that are the most efficient heat source to generate the reactions.

The solar reactor prototype was tested in Cologne, Germany, using simulated soles, instead of using a true solar field. The storage and the heat exchanger are also simulated, since the real innovation is the reactor.

Justin Lapp explained that "this scale is just a scientific prototype so that we can understand how to control it, it will start to be commercialized from 100 Mega Watts onwards, so that it can be profitable industrially".

Solar fuels

The sun can help produce energy in various ways. The best known is solar energy produced by solar plants. However, alternative fuels are made with the help of the sun. These solar fuels are an alternative for coal, oil, or natural gas. When solar energy is captured, it is stored in the chemical bonds of a fuel and then used when necessary. The process is similar to photosynthesis, sunlight is used as catalyst for chemical reactions that produce energy.


Latin American Post | Santiago Gómez Hernández
Translated from “Científicos desarrollan primer reactor solar que funciona de noche”

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