A real bright idea

Re­searchers use elec­tric lamps to build an “ar­ti­fi­cial sun,” o≠set­ting the dim skies of win­ter dur­ing stud­ies on hy­dro­gen as a fuel source.

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Frank Jordans

juelich, ger­many» Sci­en­tists in Ger­many flipped the switch Thurs­day on what’s be­ing de­scribed as “the world’s largest ar­ti­fi­cial sun,” a de­vice they hope will help shed light on new ways of mak­ing cli­mate-friendly fu­els. The gi­ant hon­ey­comb-like setup of 149 spot­lights — of­fi­cially known as “Syn­light” — in Juelich, about 19 miles west of Cologne, uses xenon short-arc lamps nor­mally found in cine­mas to sim­u­late nat­u­ral sun­light that’s of­ten in short sup­ply in Ger­many at this time of year.

By fo­cus­ing the en­tire ar­ray on a sin­gle 8by-8-inch spot, sci­en­tists from the Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter will be able to pro­duce the equiv­a­lent of 10,000 times the amount of so­lar ra­di­a­tion that would nor­mally shine on the same sur­face.

Cre­at­ing such fur­nace-like con­di­tions — with tem­per­a­tures of up to 5,432 de­grees Fahren­heit — is key to test­ing novel ways of mak­ing hy­dro­gen, ac­cord­ing to Bern­hard Hoff­schmidt, the di­rec­tor of DLR’s In­sti­tute for So­lar Re­search.

Many con­sider hy­dro­gen to be the fuel of the fu­ture be­cause it pro­duces no car­bon emis­sions when burned, mean­ing it doesn’t add to global warm­ing.

But while hy­dro­gen is the most com­mon el­e­ment in the uni­verse it is rare on Earth.

One way to man­u­fac­ture it is to split wa­ter into its two com­po­nents — the other be­ing oxy­gen — us­ing elec­tric­ity in a process called elec­trol­y­sis.

Re­searchers hope to by­pass the elec­tric­ity stage by tap­ping into the enor­mous amount of en­ergy that reaches Earth in the form of light from the sun.

Hoff­schmidt said the daz­zling dis­play is de­signed to take ex­per­i­ments done in smaller labs to the next level, adding that once re­searchers have mas­tered hy­dro­gen­mak­ing tech­niques with Syn­light’s 350-kilo­watt ar­ray, the process could be scaled up ten­fold on the way to reach­ing a level fit for in­dus­try. Ex­perts say this could take about a decade, if there is suf­fi­cient in­dus­try sup­port.

The goal is even­tu­ally to use ac­tual sun­light rather than the ar­ti­fi­cial light pro­duced at the Juelich ex­per­i­ment, which cost $3.8 mil­lion to build and re­quires as much elec­tric­ity in four hours as a four-per­son house­hold would use in a year.

Hoff­schmidt con­ceded that hy­dro­gen isn’t with­out its prob­lems — for one thing it’s in­cred­i­bly volatile — but by com­bin­ing it with car­bon monox­ide pro­duced from re­new­able sources, sci­en­tists would, for ex­am­ple, be able to make eco-friendly kerosene for the avi­a­tion in­dus­try.

Photo en­gi­neer Volk­mar Dohmen stands in front of xenon short-arc lamps in the Ger­man na­tional aero­nau­tics and space re­search cen­ter Tues­day in Juelich. Caro­line Sei­del, DPA

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