Designing A Super-Powerful Fake Sun To Make Cleaner Energy

Hydrogen power derived from sunlight has been hailed as a promising part of clean energy’s future before. But there’s still a long ways to go before it’s feasible–and in order to improve the technology that turns the sun’s power into usable energy, researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have built a huge artificial sun inside a three-story building.

The “sun,” housed within a facility called the Synlight, is made of 149 Xenon short-arc lamps that produce 10,000 times the intensity of normal sunlight. In essence, it’s made of lightbulbs so powerful that when they’re focused on a single point, they can raise the temperature to 3,000 degrees Centigrade–and give you a serious burn if you entered the room when they’re on.

The Synlight provides a constant, strong energy source that researchers are harnessing to create alternative kinds of fuel–for instance, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, which could be a vital future fuel source since it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide. But the reaction requires a lot of energy, which researchers one day hope to harvest from the sun.

So why build an artificial sun, when they could use the natural stuff? “Sunlight in central Europe is unreliable and irregular, so an artificial Sun is the preferred choice for developing production processes for solar fuels,” the German Aerospace Centre explains in a release. “Relocating research facilities to more sunny regions only appears to offer an improvement in these conditions; even at these locations, the Sun never shines with a constant intensity.”

The DLR’s Institute of Solar Research has already produced this kind of hydrogen energy in small quantities within a lab environment, but the Synlight facility will let them produce it at a scale where the hydrogen energy could be used in industry. In this case, developing the future of solar energy meant designing a sun of one’s own.