Solar furnace

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A solar furnace is a structure that captures sunlight to produce high temperatures, usually for industry. This is done with a curved mirror (or an array of mirrors) that acts as a parabolic reflector, concentrating light (Insolation) onto a focal point. The temperature at the focal point may reach 3,500 °C (6,330 °F), and this heat can be used to generate electricity, melt steel, make hydrogen fuel or nanomaterials.

The term "solar furnace" has also evolved to refer to solar concentrator heating systems using parabolic mirrors or heliostats where 538 °C (1,000 °F) is now commonly achieved. The largest solar furnace is at Odeillo in the Pyrenees-Orientales in France, opened in 1970. It employs an array of plane mirrors to gather sunlight, reflecting it onto a larger curved mirror. The rays are then focused onto an area the size of a cooking pot and can reach 3,500 °C (6,330 °F), depending on the process installed, for example:

  • about 1,000 °C (1,830 °F) for metallic receivers producing hot air for the next generation solar towers as it will be tested at the Themis plant with the Pegase project[1]
  • about 1,400 °C (2,550 °F) to produce hydrogen by cracking methane molecules[2]
  • up to 2,500 °C (4,530 °F) to test materials for extreme environment such as nuclear reactors or space vehicle atmospheric reentry
  • up to 3,500 °C (6,330 °F) to produce nanomaterials by solar induced sublimation and controlled cooling, such as carbon nanotubes[3] or zinc nanoparticles[4]

Contents

History

The ancient Greek / Latin term heliocaminus literally means "solar furnace" and refers to a glass-enclosed sunroom intentionally designed to become hotter than the outside air temperature.[5]

During the Second Punic War (218 - 202 BC), the Greek scientist Archimedes is said to have repelled the attacking Roman ships by setting them on fire with a "burning glass" that may have been an array of mirrors. An experiment to test this theory was carried out by a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005. It concluded that although the theory was sound for stationary objects, the mirrors would not likely have been able to concentrate sufficient solar energy to set a ship on fire under battle conditions.[6]

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