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Saving the world, one controller at a time

Researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra have developed new, breakthrough engineering technology that makes the concept of large scale solar thermal power generation more commercially viable that ever before.

Thermal power

While the university has been involved in solar thermal power research for decades, it is now conducting the final testing of its innovative second generation ANU 400m2 ‘Big Dish’ solar thermal concentrator, which runs using a Yokogawa programmable controller as integral to the system. The device has now been completely built and constructed in the university grounds with support from corporate partner, Wizard Power.

To work efficiently, the mirror-covered dish needs to rotate and change angle during the day as the sun changes position, and for that, a small control system is needed. Yokogawa’s FA-M3 programmable controller was chosen by the team because of its reliability, value for money, and world-wide after sales support.

The dish concentrates the sun’s rays onto a receiver mounted at its focal point, providing sufficient heat to split ammonia into hydrogen and nitrogen gases. These gases can be stored indefinitely at ambient temperature until required for use. When power is needed, the gases are recombined in an exothermic reaction, which produces enough heat to generate electricity through a steam turbine.

Because the Big Dish technology stores energy before generating electricity, it is capable of delivering multi-megawatt base load electricity and meeting peak loads on demand, 24 hours a day, in the same way that coal, nuclear or gas-fired power stations do. It is essentially emission-free power generation on a large scale.

In action

Once the technology has been fully tested, it will be utilised in a pilot base load solar thermal power plant in Whyalla, South Australia to be built by Australian company Wizard Power.

The Whyalla plant will initially have four dishes, each of which will have its own control system and be capable of producing up to 100kW of electricity. The Federal Government has supported the project with a $7 million grant, as part of its efforts to tackle climate change.

Wizard Power is already engaged in negotiations to build more power plants around the world that could see coal-fired electricity generation eventually replaced with zero emission solar thermal power.

There is also interest in the technology because the high temperatures that the Big Dish can achieve – up to 1,200 degrees Celsius – make an array of other conversion opportunities possible. These include solar gasification of coal and biomass to produce distillates that can be used as clean transport fuels.

“It’s very exciting for everyone at Yokogawa that our equipment is contributing to a technology that will have such a positive impact on the planet,” Yokogawa Australia’s managing director, John Hewitt said. “This could turn out to be an incredible story to tell the grandkids one day.”

[Martin Kolos is an engineer at Yokogawa Australia.]

Yokogawa Australia

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