German scientists have just switched on the world’s largest “artificial sun,” an instrument they say could be a game-changing technology in the fight against climate change.
With 149 high-powered lamps, the Synlight system produces light about 10,000 times the intensity of natural sunlight on the Earth’s surface. When concentrated on a single spot, the lamps can generate scorching temperatures of around 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit.
The scientists say they eventually hope to harness that heat to produce hydrogen fuels, a carbon-free alternative for vehicles and airplanes.
A group of scientists and German officials unveiled the $3.8 million system this week at the German Aerospace Center’s research facility in Jülich, a town in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Within the facility, the Synlight experiment sits in a protective radiation chamber.
“We need to expand existing technology in practical ways in order to achieve renewable energy targets, but the energy transition will falter without investments in innovative research,” Johannes Remmel, the environment minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, said in a statement.
Similar light-based technologies already exist in the U.S. desert. Sprawling solar power stations use mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto water. That heat in turn produces steams, which spins turbines and generates clean electricity.
The Synlight team is studying whether their artificial sun could do something similar, but with hydrogen fuels.
Hydrogen is sometimes called the “fuel of the future” because, unlike petroleum and natural gas, it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide when burned. Hydrogen fuels are made by extracting the chemical from water vapor — a process that requires an enormous amount of energy to create.
If companies get that energy from coal or natural gas power plants, then the hydrogen fuels aren’t truly a zero-carbon alternative.
The artificial German sun won’t immediately fix this conundrum, because Synlight itself requires a vast amount of electricity to operate. Just four hours of operation consumes as much electricity as a four-person household in a year, the Guardian noted.
But the scientists said eventually they hope to harness natural sunlight to produce the hydrogen.
“Renewable energies will be the mainstay of global power supply in the future,” said Karsten Lemmer, an executive board member of the German Aerospace Center, said in the statement.