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A New Hope For Concentrating Solar Power – Renewable Energy

A New Hope For Concentrating Solar Power


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The solar fuels field is beginning to gather steam, and that could spell good news for fans of concentrating solar power. Compared to conventional solar panels, concentrating systems are sprawling, expensive, and complicated affairs. However, they can deliver high heat to produce fuel without the intervention of fossil energy, and that could help raise their profile in the US and elsewhere.

Solar Fuels & The Concentrating Solar Power Connection

Solar fuels are synthetic fuels that come under the same general umbrella as electrofuels, or e-fuels as they are sometimes called. The common denominator is the use of renewable energy to produce hydrogen gas, which can then be combined with captured carbon to formulate liquid fuels.

The difference is that e-fuels can deploy electricity from any renewable resource, including wind, marine, and geothermal energy, as well as solar. Nuclear power plants have also been cited as a zero-emission source of electricity for hydrogen in the e-fuel supply chain.

Solar fuels refer more specifically to solar-powered electrolysis, “artificial leaf” photoelectrochemical cells, and other systems that deploy solar energy, including concentrating solar power systems.

The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been zeroing in on concentrating systems as a means of reducing the cost of solar fuels. One pathway involves high-temperature electrolysis, which could provide for improved energy efficiency. High heat can also be deployed for thermochemical hydrogen production.

Cutting The Cost Of Solar Fuels With Concentrating Solar Power

CleanTechnica caught wind of the concentrating solar power connection back in 2018, when we took note of a solar fuels research project at Washington State University, in collaboration with the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Solar fuels researchers have been busy since then. One recent example comes from a team of engineers at MIT, who have come up with a more efficient approach to solar thermochemical hydrogen production.

Thermochemical systems are based on a steam-driven, superfast version of the rusting process that occurs when iron encounters water. That process releases hydrogen. After being reheated in a vacuum, the metal is reconstituted and ready to repeat the oxidation process.

If that sounds inefficient, it is. “Only about 7 percent of incoming sunlight is used to make hydrogen,” MIT News reported earlier this month. “The results so far have been low-yield and high-cost.”

Well, that was then. The MIT team tweaked the process to capture up to 40% of energy from the sun. Among the innovations is a new design that sends a train of boxy reactors traveling in circles around the central tower of a concentrating solar power plant.

The Channels & Pores Solution

Another approach to improving thermochemical technology comes from a team of engineers at ETH Zurich, in Switzerland. They tackled the challenge of maximizing the transfer of heat from the concentrating solar power system to the interior of the reactor.

Their solution leverages a parabolic trough-style concentrating solar power system to heat a solar reactor up to 1,500 degrees Celsius. The reactor contains a structure made of cerium oxide, a variation of the metal cerium. Cerium oxide is known for its use in ceramics and glass-making.

The cerium oxide structure designed by the ETH team is described as a porous ceramic structure, designed to ensure that heat from the concentrating solar power system reaches the interior of the reactor with minimal interference.

The team called in an extrusion-based 3D printer to fabricate the structure with channels and pores that are wider at the surface to capture more sunlight. The printer also deployed a unique ink containing a high concentration of ceria particles to help boost the reaction.

“Hierarchically ordered designs with channels and pores that are open at the surface exposed to the sunlight and become narrower towards the rear of the reactor have proven to be particularly efficient,” ETH explains.

The ETH reactor also combines water-splitting with captured carbon dioxide to produce a ready-mixed combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can then undergo additional steps to produce liquid kerosene jet fuel.

A New Hope For Concentrating Solar Power

The ETH team reports that they have demonstrated a significant improvement in energy efficiency for their 3D-printed structure, with the ability to produce twice the amount of fuel compared to conventional structures when exposed to the same level of heat.

The next steps are up to the company Synhelion, which spun out of the ETH research and has licensed the 3D printing technology. Synhelion has already laid plans for a demonstration scale solar kerosene jet fuel plant in Germany integrated with a concentrating solar power plant, with Swiss International Air Lines lined up to test the fuel in its aircraft. Construction began about 12 months ago, so stay tuned for a startup date.

Meanwhile, another spinoff, Climeworks, has licensed ETH technology for its direct air carbon capture system (check out our Climeworks archive here).

Concentrating Solar Power In The USA

Meanwhile, concentrating solar power enjoyed its moment in the sun, so to speak, when the Obama administration showcased five high profile concentrating systems as part of its efforts to stimulate the US solar industry.

Things quieted down after former President Trump took office in 2017, but the Energy Department continued to promote concentrating solar as an alternative to gas-powered “peaker plants.”

The Energy Department also continued to fund research into high-temperature concentrating solar systems and other improvements, including the potential to ramp up efficiency and cut costs by deploying supercritical carbon dioxide.

In the latest development, last February the Energy Department broke ground on a pilot scale, high-heat concentrating solar power plant in New Mexico, aimed at demonstrating the ability to store one gigawatt for one hour.

The next-generation facility caps off a $100 million research program called Generation 3 (Gen3) CSP, which launched during — you guessed it — the Trump administration, in 2017. In contrast to conventional systems that reach up to 565 degrees Celsius, Gen3 aims at the goal of 720 degrees Celsius.

Sandia National Laboratory is leading the project, which deploys ceramic particles instead of the molten salt used in conventional systems. The heated particles can be used as an energy storage medium, and they can power a supercritical carbon dioxide turbine.

“If successful, this type of solar power plant could provide 100 megawatts of power continuously, around the clock, at low cost,” the Energy Department explains.

The Energy Department anticipates that the project will reach the goal of 5¢ per kilowatt-hour for electricity-plus-storage from a concentrating solar power plant. We’ll know soon enough, as the plant is expected to be up and running next year.

Where’s Congress?

Of course, no story about concentrating solar power would be complete without a mention of the goings-on over at the US House of Representatives, where the Republican majority finally selected Mike Johnson of Louisiana to fill the all-important position of Speaker.

Coincidentally or not, Representative Johnson is widely credited with an important role in former President Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, an effort that reached a pivotal moment in the violent insurrection of January 6, 2021 (spoiler alert: not).

Republican members of the House and Senate lost the battle to keep President-elect Joe Biden out of office on January 6 but the fight for power continues as they continue to throw monkey wrenches into the normal functions of government.

As the saying goes, it ain’t over ’til it’s over…

Follow me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, LinkedIn, and Spoutible.

Image: Courtesy of ETH Zurich via Advanced Materials Interfaces, Vol 10,Nr. 30, 2023. “The artwork illustrates a 3D-​printed ceria structure with hierarchically channeled architecture. Concentrated solar radiation is incident on the graded structure and drives the solar splitting of CO2 into separate flows of CO and O2.”


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