‘It looks simple in many ways. You reflect the sun, you make something hot, you make steam…and turn a turbine’. This is how Wes Stein, Chief Research Scientist in Solar Energy at CSIRO, describes his work in solar thermal energy.
Wes first became involved in solar technology as a young engineer with a state-run power company. He spent months in the Californian desert working at some of the original solar thermal power stations. He spent many more in the UK working with an engineering firm designing and building power stations.
Wes is now an expert in his field. ‘I've always enjoyed power. I've always enjoyed energy. The fact that we can get it from the sun is really something quite exciting’, Wes says.
Wes joined CSIRO 17 years ago and immediately started looking into how to improve solar energy technology. Along with his colleagues, he has pioneered new technology, including low-cost, high-performance heliostats––specialised mirrors that track the sun and reflect light towards a central receiver for it to be heated. After much trial and error, heliostat technology is taking off. ‘There's an awful lot of R&D and mistakes that have happened along the way’, Wes says. ‘We've overcome them, and we're now up there with the best technology in the world.’
I have a more immediate interaction with other countries than many people do, and I find that really exciting. It’s a two-way sharing of knowledge, and as the world gets smaller, we’re finding that that is becoming stronger and stronger.
Wes recognises the importance of Australian Government support, including from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, Austrade and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. ‘The Australian Government has been very supportive of our work over many years now. It's due to them that we have this internationally leading position’, he says.
Wes is now taking Australian expertise and sharing it internationally, working on projects to export Australian heliostats and receiver technology to build solar fields in Japan, China, Chile and Cyprus. Wes and his team recently developed a partnership with industry in China, to help meet its renewable energy demands. ‘We've licensed our technology…developed through Australian Government funding to Chinese companies. Very soon we could actually see Australian technology being built in China’, Wes says.
CSIRO’s work has led to opportunities for Australian businesses. Wes describes the heliostats as ‘much like a car’ with the technology requiring high precision metals parts, motors and glass, as well as concreters, electricians, fitters, and boilermakers to install a complete system. ‘We've had great success working with the automotive industry in Australia, using their expertise to turn our ideas into mass-produced items at as low a cost as possible … we've licensed a number of Australian companies to do this’, he says.
Reflecting on his work, Wes says that he thinks that an engineer should, as much as possible, have a hands-on interest in their technology. He also enjoys a very close and engaging interaction with colleagues in other countries. ‘I find that really exciting. It's a two-way sharing of knowledge, and as the world gets smaller, we're finding that that interaction is becoming stronger and stronger.’