For the first time ever scientists have managed to use the sun’s rays to create the same energy that is currently produced in coal or gas fired power stations.
The breakthrough in Australia means one day the sun could compete with fossil fuels to provide our energy needs.
Using solar energy, scientists have reached temperatures and pressures never before achieved to create “supercritical steam”.
“It’s like breaking the sound barrier,” said Dr Alex Wonhas from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
“Instead of relying on burning fossil fuels to produce supercritical steam, this breakthrough demonstrates that the power plants of the future could instead be using the free, zero emission energy of the sun to achieve the same result.”
At a research centre in Newcastle, north of Sydney, a field of mirrors are angled to catch the sun’s rays and reflect them onto a receiving tower.
The field of beams creates temperatures up to 570C, which combined with high pressure produces the steam which current solar power plants have been unable to make.
Project leader Robbie McNaughton told Sky News: “The real challenge now is to prove that it’s going to last. We’ve proved that we can actually do the optical side of it and produce the temperature and conditions, we just need to make sure that we can produce a power plant that might last for 20 years.”
Ivor Frischknecht, CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), said there is still a great deal of work to be done before the technology could be used on a commercial scale but “it’s a potential game changer for the world”.
“The steam can also be stored relatively easily in a big thermos so you’ve got renewable energy which can be used in existing infrastructure which is now also storable,” he added.
The milestone comes at a crucial time for Australia, one of the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases per capita largely due to its reliance on coal-fired power stations.
The government is about to scrap a carbon tax on the country’s worst polluters which was only introduced a couple of years ago.
Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott made getting rid of the tax a pre-election promise.
He recently said the tax was “9% on the price of power; it is a $9bn handbrake on our economy, a $550 hit on every household’s cost of living”.
But without the balance of power in Australia’s senate, Mr Abbott requires the support of crossbench senators to get the repeal of the tax through.
Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, told Sky News: “The US has a target to reduce coal emissions by 30% by 2020.
“China has indicated that they’ll put absolute targets on their emission reductions, they have an emissions trading scheme that will cover a quarter of a billion people.
“The Indian prime minister wants to put solar panels on every roof in India. Australia is part of a global community that is acting and we need to play our part.”