Indoor simulator equal to 3,000 suns

U. MINNESOTA (US) — The first solar simulator of its kind in the US can replicate the amount of sunlight equivalent to more than 3,000 suns.

The simulator includes seven mirrored lamps with 6,500-watt bulbs in each lamp. Using special reflectors, the light from the seven lamps is concentrated into a single three-inch-diameter spot where specialized solar chemical reactors are tested. Temperatures in the reactor from the concentrated light can reach more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 Celsius).

These high temperatures give researchers at the University of Minnesota a unique opportunity to develop highly efficient ways to convert carbon dioxide and water to solar fuels. The transformational process reverses combustion by efficiently “re-energizing” carbon dioxide and water molecules back into hydrocarbon form using solar energy, much like natural photosynthesis except faster and more efficiently.

Researchers say the fuel production process is sustainable because it uses recycled carbon dioxide and water. The only byproduct is oxygen, which is released to the environment during the splitting reactions and used again when the hydrocarbon fuels are burned.

Another process the researchers study uses high temperatures from sunlight to gasify biomass from plants to produce synthetic fuels.

If successful at a small scale in the lab, the processes could be scaled up and used in large-scale, outdoor solar concentrators across the globe.

“Some people ask us why we would be doing solar research in a cold, northern state like Minnesota,” says mechanical engineering assistant professor Wojciech Lipinski, a lead researcher on the project. “I usually respond that you don’t need to design a car on the road, you design it in a lab. So why not develop solar technologies in cold climates where you have lots of experts and great equipment?”

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