Scientists in Germany are testing what they describe as “the world’s largest artificial sun,” which they hope could pave the way toward creating hydrogen to use as a green fuel.
The system called Synlight – being developed at the German Aerospace Centre near Cologne – is an array of 149 bright film projector spotlights. They produce light about 10,000 times stronger than typical sunlight.
The test aims to find new ways to create hydrogen to fuel vehicles such as cars and planes, explained Bernhard Hoffschmidt, the director of the Centre’s Institute for Solar Research.
“We’re essentially bringing the sun to the Earth, by re-creating its radiation in a lab,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
“We orientate all lamps to focus on one point, which can generate temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Celsius.”
The operation produces water vapour that can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, Hoffschmidt said.
“The hydrogen created can then be used to power airplanes and cars (with) carbon-dioxide-free fuel,” he said.
Countries are under increasing pressure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and hope to use excess power generated by renewable sources such as wind or solar to create hydrogen from water through a process called electrolysis.
Synlight itself consumes a large amount of energy, however, Hoffschmidt said.
“In four hours the system uses about as much electricity as a four-person household in a year. Our goal is to eventually use actual sunlight to make hydrogen, rather than artificial light.”
He also acknowledged there was “a long way to go” before the method could be scaled up for commercial use, which he said would require billions of tonnes of hydrogen.
“I think commercial use will only really be possible when societies and governments realise that we cannot burn any more fossil fuels,” Hoffschmidt said.
He added, however, that global events like recent UN climate talks in Morocco in November provided welcome momentum in the fight against climate change, and were a sign that “things are starting to change”.