Germany Fires Up ‘World’s Largest Artificial Sun’

Scientists in Germany have flipped the switched on what’s being described as “the world’s largest artificial sun” and which they hope will help shed light on new ways of making climate-friendly fuel – hydrogen. The giant honeycomb-like setup of 149 spotlights — officially known as “Synlight” — which consists of a huge array of xenon short-arc lamps on a single 20-by-20 centimetre (8×8 inch) spots. As filmmakers know xenon short-arc lamps normally found in cinemas to simulate sunlight.  Synlight is located in Juelich, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Cologne, where natural sunlight that’s often in short supply in Germany at this time of year. Scientists from the German Aerospace Centre, or DLR, will be able to produce the equivalent of 10,000 times the amount of solar radiation that would normally shine on the same sized surface. The spectrum of UV radiation is similar to that of the Sun.

The huge machine towers 45 feet high and 52 feet across, and produces temperatures of up to 3,000°C (5,400°F) and has been subject to tests lasting just 15 to 20 minutes. “We’ve been testing it for the last two months, and this is the first public event,” Dmitrij Laaber, a research engineer involved on the project. Bernhard Hoffschmidt, Head of the Institute for Solar Research, conceded that hydrogen is not without its problems – for one thing, it is incredibly volatile – but hydrogen is an incredibly useful element, being a source of fuel with no carbon emissions. But it does not occur naturally, and so must be created synthetically with machines like this. Synlight is a proof of concept for now, with the lamps using as much electricity in four hours as a four-person household would do in a year. The heat they generate is enough to incinerate a person if you were standing in the same room. Many consider hydrogen to be the fuel of the future because it produces no carbon emissions when burned, meaning it does not add to global warming. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but free, uncombined hydrogen gas is relatively rare on earth. One way to manufacture hydrogen is to split water into its two components – the other being oxygen – using electricity in a process called electrolysis. But the goal in the future is to replicate this process using sunlight, possibly scaling up the operation to produce usable amounts of hydrogen.

Hoffschmidt said the dazzling display is designed to take experiments done in smaller labs to the next level, adding that once researchers have mastered hydrogen-making techniques with Synlight’s 350-kilowatt array, the process could be scaled up ten-fold on the way to reaching a level fit for industry. Experts say this could take about a decade, if there is sufficient industry support. Researchers hope to bypass the electricity stage by tapping into the enormous amount of energy that reaches Earth in the form of light from the sun.

The goal is to eventually use actual sunlight rather than the artificial light produced at the Juelich experiment, which is expensive and actually costs $3.8 million to build and requires as much electricity in four hours as a four-person household would use in a year. “The next step would be to get this reactor to a real solar plant, where it can be tested under real conditions,” Laaber said. “Our facility is mainly for testing of the components.”