Let there be light: German scientists test 'artificial sun'

Scientists switch on 'artificial sun' in German lab
In this March 21, 2017 photo engineer Volkmar Dohmen stands in front of xenon short-arc lamps in the DLR German national aeronautics and space research center in Juelich, western Germany. The lights are part of an artificial sun that will be used for research purposes. (Caroline Seidel/dpa via AP)

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 30 kilometers (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 20-by-20 centimeter (8x8 inch) spot, scientists from the German Aerospace Center, or DLR , 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 3,000 degrees Celsius (5,432 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.

Scientists switch on 'artificial sun' in German lab
In this March 21, 2017 photo engineer Volkmar Dohmen stands in front of xenon short-arc lamps in the DLR German national aeronautics and space research center in Juelich, western Germany. The lights are part of an artificial sun that will be used for research purposes. (Caroline Seidel/dpa via AP)

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 hydrogen-making techniques with Synlight's 350-kilowatt array, the process could be scaled up ten-fold 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 to eventually use actual sunlight rather than the artificial light produced at the Juelich experiment, which cost 3.5 million euros ($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.


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Mar 23, 2017
It's a bit hard to understand why ten thousand times normal sunlight would experimentally produce anything of value to be used at one times normal. One could make a quick mental case for a hundred times the sun's energy (resulting in something that needs efficiency scaling less than 99% before being useful) but the idea that cracking hydrogen may require that much power puts the whole thing back into the realm of nuclear for what kind of outputs are going to be needed. Is this just some high-tech sophisticated scam? Y'know, higher tech and more sophisticated than the energy-negative fuel-from-corn nonsense?

Mar 23, 2017
They need the temperatures and conditions for the tests.

Are you sufficiently informed about them to offer real criticism?

Mar 23, 2017
@loneislander:
The first thing that came to mind was to act as an "in-lab replica" of a large scale solar plant where they are focusing several acres of sunlight into a single point for use. They may be thinking instead of heating a molten salt solution for producing steam, using the heat in some Hydrogen based process. Just a thought.

Mar 23, 2017
Is the solar facility in France not up to it?

Mar 24, 2017
One doesn't need to be an expert to offer informed criticism. A 350 kW array of sunlight is enormous; focused into such a small area, how much hydrogen can it possibly liberate? The through-put can't be economical. Far better use of resources to use that energy more directly.

Mar 24, 2017
This rubbish has been tried before, decades ago and yielded no results worth mentioning. Cracking hydrogen is an easy thing to comprehend, but the energy needed to do it will always exceed the energy that you can get out of the resulting product. Unless you can fuse it, which is a different process altogether.

Mar 24, 2017
They may be thinking instead of heating a molten salt solution for producing steam, using the heat in some Hydrogen based process.

Yes, that is what they are going to do (according to their website three of the chambers incorporate setups for testing solar fuel cells). It's also going to be used to test spacecraft parts. The entire setup is flexible so they can either focus everything on one experiment or parcel it up into many small experimental setups.

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