The race to transition to cleaner, greener natural gas power plants is getting a boost from an unlikely source: solar energy. A new system developed by the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) converts natural gas and sunlight into a more energy-rich fuel called syngas, which will allow hybrid solar-gas power plants to use about 20% less natural gas to produce the same amount of electricity while also lowering the plant's greenhouse gas emissions.
The system works through concentrating solar power, which uses a reflecting surface to concentrate the sun's rays like a magnifying glass. In the case of the new system from PNNL, a mirrored parabolic dish directs sunbeams to a central point, where a device absorbs the solar heat to make syngas.
The four-foot-long, two-foot-wide device contains a chemical reactor and several heat exchangers. The concentrated sunlight heats up the natural gas flowing through the reactor's channels, where a catalyst helps turn the natural gas into syngas. The heat exchangers recycle leftover heat from the chemical reaction gas, increasing the efficiency of the system. In fact, tests on an early prototype of the device demonstrated that more than 60% of the sunlight hitting the parabolic dish was converted into chemical energy contained in the syngas. For the complete story, see the Energy Blog .