German scientists flipped the switch on the "world's largest artificial sun" on Thursday, marking a major milestone in efforts to generate fuel that's easier on the environment.
Known as the "Synlight" experiment, the huge structure resembles a honeycomb and comprises 149 spotlights, making up a giant artificial sun capable of delivering a light intensity of roughly 10,000 times the Earth's natural solar radiation.
The Synlight Experiment
Synlight is located in Jülich, roughly 19 miles (30 km) west of Cologne and was developed by scientists at the Institute for Solar Research of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt, or DLR).
Those 149 xenon short-arc spotlights are the kind of lamps usually found in cinemas to mimic natural sunlight. The scientists hope to discover new ways of generating climate-friendly fuel.
With Synlight, scientists focused all spotlights on a single 8x8-inch spot (20x20 cm), creating a huge furnace with temperatures of up to 5,432 degrees Fahrenheit (3,000 degrees Celsius).
"If you went in the room when it was switched on, you'd burn directly," Professor Bernard Hoffschmidt, a German Aerospace Center research director, tells the Guardian.
Such a massive experiment, however, doesn't come without a cost. In just four hours, Synlight consumes as much electricity as a family of four would consume in a year.
Nevertheless, the project is exciting and heralds a new wave of experiments and energy solutions. One area of the research will entail seeking new ways to efficiently produce hydrogen, which would in turn mark a milestone toward making artificial fuel for planes.
"We'd need billions of tonnes of hydrogen if we wanted to drive aeroplanes and cars on CO2-free fuel," said Hoffschmidt. "Climate change is speeding up so we need to speed up innovation."
Hydrogen could be a great source of fuel in the future since it doesn't produce carbon emissions upon burning and therefore would not contribute to global warming. However, hydrogen doesn't exist naturally in its pure form and obtaining it from water sucks up massive amounts of energy. Artificial sunlight could provide a more affordable solution in the future and help counter global warming.
According to Hoffschmidt, other experiments have been conducted in smaller labs but Synlight takes things to the next level. Once scientists manage to master techniques to produce hydrogen with the 350-kilowatt array of the huge artificial sun, they could scale up the process by as much as tenfold to an industry-scale level.
The ultimate goal is to manage to tap natural sunlight rather than artificial one, because Synlight sucks up so much electricity. Hoffschmidt reckons that hydrogen does pose its fair share of challenges, such as its great volatility, but a potential mix with carbon monoxide from renewable energy sources could allow researchers to develop eco-friendly fuel for airplanes and cars.
It remains to be seen how the Synlight experiment will pan out, but it nonetheless heralds exciting progress and could greatly contribute to the fight against global warming.