Scientists and engineers in Australia have broken new ground in the use of solar energy to generate ultra hot steam for power generation purposes.

Australian scientists have successfully used solar power facilities at CSIRO’s Energy Centre in Newcastle to create a “supercritical” steam of record-breaking intensity.

The Advanced Solar Steam Receiver Project sought to prove that solar thermal technology is capable of matching the most sophisticated fossil fuel systems in terms of intensity and performance.

Scientists and engineers working on the project employed a field of automated heliostats at the Energy Centre to focus sunlight onto a central receiver point which was attached to a solar thermal tower through which water is pumped. This enabled them to produce steam which hit the highest temperature and pressure levels ever achieved in the world via the exclusive use of solar energy.

The temperature levels achieved by the system maxed out at 570 degrees Celsius – high enough to melt aluminium, while the pressure level of 23.5 megapascals is the equivalent to that found around two kilometres below the surface of the sea.

The key to the system is the use of a sophisticated automated control system which is capable of predicting the amount of energy channeled by each of the heliostats and modulating them in order to optimise the amount which is delivered without over-stressing the receiver equipment.

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The solar thermal tower in action

The feat marks the first time supercritical steam – which is conventionally only created via the burning of fossil fuels – has been produced solely by means of solar energy.

It also marks a major breakthrough for solar thermal power plants, or concentrating solar power (CSP) facilities, which in the past have only ever been capable of producing temperatures at “subcritical” levels, falling well short of their fossil fuel peers.

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How a supercritical solar thermal power plant would work

The technology dramatically extends the range of usage for solar power in the modern energy sector, given that supercritical steam is required to drive the world’s most sophisticated power plant turbines.

The $5.68 million research project was undertaken in collaboration with Abengoa Solar and received the support of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.