In what is being described as a major breakthrough for renewable energy, researchers at Australia’s national science agency just set a world record by using solar power to generate supercritical steam at a solar thermal plant. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) created the highest temperatures ever achieved without coal or gas at its solar thermal test plant in Newcastle using a field of more than 600 heliostat mirrors directed at two towers containing solar receivers and turbines. The supercritical steam was generated at a pressure of 23.5 mpa (3,400 psi) and 570° C (1,058° F).
“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,” said Dr Alex Wonhas, CSIRO’s energy director. “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.”
Today’s commercial solar thermal plants use subcritical steam that operates at lower pressure and leads to inefficiencies. Converting to supercritical could make solar thermal energy cost competitive with fossil fuel-generated power, of which Australia gets 90 percent of its electricity from.
While the technology is not ready to be scaled up on a commercial level, the solar breakthrough brings Australia and the world an important step closer to generating a majority of its electricity using zero emissions power from the sun.