South African research team makes solar energy breakthrough

Researchers at Stellenbosch University have created a solar collection system to rival the most cutting edge facilities.

Stellenbosch University (SU) will this month launch its pilot solar collector system called Helio100. The concentrated solar power (csp) facility was created to match the sustainability of solar-generated power with the need for cost-effective implementation.

"The real hindrance worldwide to the technology really taking off is that it needs to be done at low cost – something we believe we have the solution for," says Paul Gauche, a senior researcher at SU.

The technology takes a simple approach to overcoming the current challenges in solar power generation.

"Helio100 consists of a field of tracking mirrors called heliostats and a small tower that captures concentrated sunlight capable of running a turbine at 1 000°C," explains Gauche.

The 100kW system – enough to power about 30 households – works by heating air which drives a gas turbine. This means that no water or other working fluids are needed.

What further sets the system apart is its "plonkability". According to Gauche, this means that the system can be "plonked" down anywhere without the need for skilled labour, ground penetration or a large workforce.

The environmentally friendly project is adaptable to small and large scale operations as modular generating units can be connected to larger power plants. 

"This research breakthrough ties in with the vision of Stellenbosch University to be inclusive, innovative and future-focused," says Prof Wikus van Niekerk.

"Developing a CSP industry in South Africa has the potential to help resolve the challenges around sustainable energy supply. The Helio100 project can be seen as a significant step in this development pathway for South Africa."

The pilot project will be unveiled to the CSP world at SolarPACES, the leading international CSP conference.