3D print your own solar field

By Kate Hines

20 October 2015

5 minute read

Our solar thermal tower testing facility at our Energy Centre in Newcastle.

Our solar thermal tower testing facility at our Energy Centre in Newcastle.

When it comes to Australia’s relationship with the sun, it can be a little ‘love-hate’ at times. Sizzling backyard Barbies, detergent down the slip-and-slide, scorched feet on white sand and wide brimmed hats throwing shadows on the cricket pitch. Beautiful.

But in equal measure, cracked earth, broken dreams and cakey catchments where water, produce or futures could have been.  It’s a tough relationship – there’s no denying. But, of late, the balance has shifted as we look differently at the sun – our most inexhaustible resource.

Every day, it provides enough energy to power our modern lifestyles and, in commercial-scale solar deployments, looks set to play a critical role in Australia’s clean energy future.

Six hot solar stats:

Viewed in this light, it’s a pretty compelling case for solar deployments in Australia – and in particular, for concentrating solar thermal (CST) power plants. These plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight between 50 and 1000 times its normal strength.  The concentrated solar radiation is then captured as thermal energy in a working (or heat transfer) fluid, usually a gas or liquid, heated to a high temperature.

Today,  the Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative (ASTRI), of which CSIRO is the lead partner, provided a glimpse into what that solar future looks like with the release of a 3D printable model of its 25 MW** Concentrating Solar Thermal reference power plant.


A computer generated image of the ASTRI 3D model

Cool much? The desktop model, a first of its kind, is an education tool that allows Australians to get ‘hands on’ with the benefits, value and opportunity that CST technology deployments present for Australia.

Director of ASTRI, Dr Manuel Blanco said of the model release: “As the debate heats up around the best path forward for Australia’s renewable energy future, it’s the storage component of CST technology that will revolutionise the way we deploy solar power.

“This model brings that component to life, showing how the storage tanks are positioned in conjunction with the solar tower and heliostat array to capture and dispatch energy, even when the sun isn’t shining.”

A 19 x 19 centimetre model, the printable plant details the layout and positioning of more than 140 of the 6,377 heliostats (large mirrors) that make up a complete solar field along with the receiver tower and two molten (hot!) salt storage tanks.

When combined with a detailed field map of the full ASTRI heliostat array (the mirror field), the model illustrates a CST plant that could generate up to 90 GWh of electrical energy per year*** with four hours of storage per day – enough to power more than 12,000 homes each year according to figures from the Australian Energy Regulator****.

You can print your own 3D CST power plant too

It’s as easy as one, two, and three.

Step 1) Download the 3D printable STL file from the ASTRI website

Step 2) Follow the instructions to save the file then share it with your preferred 3D print supplier

Step 3) Print then marvel at the beauty and simplicity of Australia’s solar future in the palm of your hand

Watch our short video of the model’s development from design to 3D print production here.

*Each hour 430 quintillion Joules of energy from the sun hits the Earth. In comparison, the total amount of energy that all humans use in a year is 410 quintillion Joules

**The ASTRI plant design is 25 MW (electrical) with 4 hours storage to produce 90 GWh/year

***Based on figures from ASTRI’s reference site in Alice Springs

****Figures from the Australian Energy Regulator indicate that the average Australian household consumes approximately 7.4 MWh (electrical) per annum