CSIRO's Supercritical Solar Is A Clean Energy Breakthrough

CSIRO has made some amazing contributions to science in its almost 100 years of history, like Wi-Fi and the Square Kilometer Array. It can add another feather to its cap with the announcement of a potentially world-changing solar energy breakthrough.

Despite having $111 million cut from its budget in the next four years, the nation's science agency hasn't slowed its research into technologies that could change the way we live. The latest discovery has huge potential -- it's the maturation of a technology that could replace pollution-producing fossil fuel powerplants.

Supercritical solar steam energy uses the power of the Sun, collected on hundreds of solar panels and used to heat water under extremely high pressure to massive temperatures. That steam then drives a turbine to produce electricity. CSIRO's development is the combination of achieving the highest-yet recorded pressure of 23.5 megapascals and temperature of 570 degrees Celsius, demonstrated in a real-world setting rather than a lab.

This temperature is the highest supercritical steam record outside of a fossil fuel power plant, and CSIRO hopes that with more development, the solar-powered technology will be able to supplement or replace fossil fuel power plants in coming decades, according to CSIRO energy director Dr Alex Wonhas: "It's like breaking the sound barrier. This step change proves solar has the potential to compete with the peak performance capabilities of fossil fuel sources.

"Instead of relying on burning fossil fuels to produce supercritical steam, this breakthrough demonstrates that the power plants of the future could instead be using the free, zero-emission energy of the sun to achieve the same result."

In most power station designs, heat from a source like burning fossil fuels is used to turn water into steam and drive a turbine. Some supercritical steam fossil fuel power stations already exist around Australia, although subcritical steam makes up the vast majority. Existing solar-powered electricity generators around the world use subcritical steam; the supercritical upgrade would make them more efficient at no environmental cost. [CSIRO]