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When a blockbuster is being shown on the big screen in a cinema theatre, a particularly high-performance projector provides the necessary light. Researchers in Jülich have now combined 149 such projectors, known as xenon short-arc lamps. Their cumulative light intensity is 10,000 times that of the natural sun, generating temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Celsius. The scientists are using their artificial sun to explore ways of producing hydrogen with the help of the real sun. This is because their artificial super-sun has one major advantage: unlike the natural sun, it shines all the time, regardless of the time of day or weather conditions.
Fuel of the future
Solar hydrogen could help us solve various problems in the future. For example, no more fossil fuel sources would be needed to manufacture fuels like kerosene. One such fossil fuel is petroleum, which is not available in infinite quantities. At the same time, the fuel produced from hydrogen would be more climate friendly because hydrogen burns without giving off carbon dioxide. That is why scientists and big business are looking for ways in which to generate hydrogen "cleanly". Apart from experimenting with wind energy, researchers are pinning their hopes on solar energy in particular. Water is split into hydrogen and oxygen in thermochemical processes. The hydrogen can then be converted into electricity or liquid fuel. Liquid fuel from hydrogen can be turned into kerosene that emits no carbon dioxide and is therefore more climate-neutral.
Across the Atlantic
Dr Kai Wieghardt is the project leader of Synlight, which is what the new facility at the Institute of Solar Research is called. He envisages solar hydrogen being used primarily as a source of energy for conventional fuels like the kerosene used to power aircraft. Although small planes can already fly on electrical energy, this is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future for larger aircraft. "On the one hand, we have declining reserves of crude oil and the problems of climate change, and on the other we know perfectly well that kerosene will still be needed for transatlantic flights in 50 years’ time. This is why it is so important to develop fuels based on regenerative energies", explains Wieghardt.
The Synlight facility towers three stories high. It is operated by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). "What we have built here is unique worldwide", says Wieghardt. "This facility is as big as all the world’s other facilities combined." His colleagues at the Institute of Solar Research have already been able to produce solar hydrogen in small labs. They hope that Synlight will allow them to progress from small-scale experiments to production on an industrial scale.
The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) runs a total of 40 institutes and facilities at 20 sites. Its scientists conduct research into the Earth and the solar system, developing in the process technologies for sustainable energy supply and intelligent mobility. Whether it is a question of flying across the north polar ice cap on Mars or exploring the rings of Saturn: the DLR is involved. Much is done to foster the next generation of researchers: in 2015 alone, the DLR took more than 1,000 doctoral students from many different disciplines.