Fuel from the sun

A new approach to harnessing small-scale solar power could deliver higher levels of efficiency in portable power sources.

Solar thermal inside

A UNSW Engineering PhD student is taking a new approach to small-scale solar power which could deliver new levels of efficiency in portable power sources.

Raúl Zimmerman, a PhD student in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, is developing a compact, portable, solar-powered unit to produce hydrogen, the energy source for electricity-producing hydrogen fuel cells.

The work has won Raúl the overall 2009 Engineering Dean's Excellence Award in Postgraduate Research.

Hydrogen is commonly produced from methanol in a reaction requiring high temperatures. Raúl's micro-solar collector aims to produce hydrogen in a micro-reactor using heat from the sun, with the end result being a more efficient fuel cell to power electrical devices or charge batteries, in remote locations.

Hydrogen fuel cells are already in the market but rely on external heat sources, such as burning of methanol, to power the hydrogen-producing reaction.

"I have a strong interest in solar energy," said Raúl, who is orginally from Argentina and studied at Israel's Technion (the Israel Institute of Technology) before undertaking his PhD at UNSW.

"This is the first project we know of that utilises solar thermal energy at a small scale. Normally solar thermal applications are for power plants or water heating in rooftop applications."

Raúl's supervisor, Dr Gary Rosengarten of the Thermal and Fluids Engineering Research Group, said the project was groundbreaking for its focus on small-scale, portable applications.

"This is the first time people have coupled microtechnology with solar thermal energy," he said.

Dr Rosengarten said fuel cells had advantages over batteries in remote locations because they can be instantly recharged with a new fuel source. By using solar thermal energy in creating hydrogen fuel, fuel cell efficiency could be further enhanced by around 25 per cent by conserving methanol that would otherwise be used as fuel.

The category winners in the Engineering Dean's Excellence Awards were: Ning Wang in Fundamental and Enabling Research; Fiona Johnson in Resources and Infrastructure for the Future; and Nagaraj Shivaramaiah in The Digital Future.

UNSW Media Office: Peter Trute | 02 9385 1933 | p.trute@unsw.edu.au