Masdar's new slant on solar energy

Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Government's clean energy firm, tests a new type of solar technology that could 'revolutionise' the industry.

Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Government's clean energy firm, is testing a new type of solar technology that could cut costs and "revolutionise" the industry, the company's chief executive said yesterday. A small pilot plant has been completed at the site of Masdar City, the carbon-neutral development on the outskirts of the capital, and is already operating under researchers at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

If advertised efficiency improvements pan out, the technology could be deployed at a greater scale in the city and exported worldwide. The "beam down" plant has the potential to boost the efficiency of solar thermal technology, which uses the heat of the sun to produce electricity from a conventional turbine, said Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar. "The initial project findings have been very positive and if the results continue to be successful, 'beam down' technology has the potential to revolutionise the way in which all solar towers are built in the future," Mr al Jaber said.

The plant is comprised of a circle of mirrors that focus sunlight on a central mirror at the top of a tower. That mirror beams the concentrated sunlight down to a point at the base of the tower to heat water or other liquid, which is then used to produce electricity. A number of similar solar projects are operating worldwide, but these designs focus the heat of the sun on the top of the tower, not its base.

Masdar, which built the plant in partnership with Cosmo Oil of Japan and the Tokyo Institute of Technology after signing an agreement in late 2007, hopes that placing the heat receiver at the base will cut out the energy costs associated with pumping liquids up the tower's length. The central mirror is also a much larger target on which to reflect sunlight, which means lower costs for the engineering and equipment needed for the other mirrors to track the sun throughout the day, said Dr Tariq Ali, the vice president for research at the Masdar Institute.

Masdar officials did not disclose the output capacity of the plant yesterday, but the original agreement called for a capacity of 100 kilowatts, which is much smaller than commercial power plants. Dr Ali said the plant would allow his researchers to evaluate the technology's effectiveness in Abu Dhabi's weather conditions, develop intellectual property and explore ways to convert it to commercial scale.

"This is what we need, getting things out of the laboratory and into the demonstration phase, into pilots, so they can become commercial as quickly as possible," he said. "It's to learn how to build these things. Where are they in the world? There aren't any." The investment cost, which was not disclosed, was split among the partners, Dr Ali said. Masdar has invested heavily across the full range of solar technologies, including solar thermal and photovoltaic panels, which use semiconductors to convert sunlight directly into a current of electricity.