Business beams with new solar cells

The CSIRO research team

The sun provides a huge amount of energy for us and our work on solar cells is helping to capture it.

By Emily Lehmann

Blessed with beautiful beaches and plenty of sunshine, it’s easy to argue that Australia is the lucky country.

Of all our major cities, Perth takes the cake as the sunniest with an average 3200 hours of sunshine annually. Even well-seasoned Melbournians, who live in our least sunny city, get to enjoy an average of 2200 hours of sunshine a year.

So it might not be so hard to believe that Australia is home to the highest solar radiation per square metre of any continent. Not only does this reinforce why ‘slip, slop, slap’ should be every local’s mantra, this high degree of sunshine means that we have some of the best solar energy resources in the world.

Right now, only 1.1 per cent of our electrical energy comes from solar, but this could soon change as new technologies come to market.

Solar cells – like the flexible kind we’re printing – are fast becoming an important player in the renewable energy mix. Thin and lightweight, solar cells can be plastered to almost any surface to harness the sun’s energy and bring you sustainable power.

Solar energy is a business opportunity for Australian industry that’s projected to be worth about US$160 billion internationally by 2023.

Solar cell

A new skin for solar energy. Dyesol’s perovskite based cell is highly efficient.

We’ve been working with Dyesol, a local small-to-medium-sized enterprise (SME) to tap into this growing market and help them become the first to commercialise a new kind of solar cell based on perovskite material.

Dyesol develops cutting edge, clean energy generation solutions for consumers and hopes to be able to offer perovskite solar cells as a competitive alternative to the more widely-used thin-film photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Perovskite solar cells are an attractive option as the material cost is low and they are highly efficient to manufacture. Yet, at this stage it’s uncertain whether the product would have stability and durability over the long-term compared to other solar cells currently on the market.

Together, we’re working to investigate this limitation and improve the process for making perovskite solar cells so that Dyesol can produce a high-quality, sought after product.

We’ve undertaken two Department of Industry projects together, where our flexible electronics experts were brought into Dyesol’s business to help them identify the best way to take the technology forward.

Now, through a longer term partnership, we hope to help Dyesol capture the opportunities that this technology – and our great solar potential – offers Australia and turn their idea into a profitable and globally competitive business.

Want  to find the right expertise and tools to overcome technical challenges and grow your business? Connect with our SME Engagement Centre now.

Putting Cyprus Hill on the map: how we’re bringing our solar technology to the world

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see a solar field constructed in less than three minutes? Of course you haven’t, but what the heck, here it is.

This timelapse footage was taken on the south coast of Cyprus, where our team recently designed and installed a solar thermal field of 50 heliostats (mirrors that reflect the sun’s heat to a central tower) which could generate enough heat to boil a kettle in less than five seconds.

Super quick cups of tea aside, solar energy has enormous potential for Cyprus.

Being the southern-most member of the EU, the country is blessed with abundant sunshine. However most of the island nation’s electricity is generated – expensively – using oil, making solar an attractive option for power generation.

This is good news for Cyprus which, under European legislation, is required to derive 13% of its total energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020.

These are just some of the driving forces behind the Cyprus Institute’s decision to establish a solar thermal research facility at Pentakamo on the south coast, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean Sea.

Solar Field low

A Mediterranean getaway like no other. This thermal solar field is part of a plan for Cyprus to generate 13% of its energy requirements through renewable sources. Credit: Cyprus Institute

For the team in our Energy Flagship, this project was a big step, as it’s the first time we’ve deployed this cutting edge technology outside of our own backyard.

“We’ve developed a lot of confidence building our own fields,” said our solar research leader Wes Stein, “but we were glad to step out of our comfort-zone for the Cyprus Institute because we shared a common goal. They’ve been a fantastic partner, and in fact we’ve just signed a MoU to further the partnership and undertake joint solar research with them.

“The project has given us a strong understanding of how to deploy these projects outside of our own safety zone and into other environments. And that’s where we want to go, we want solar thermal to be commercialised by building on the good research that we’re doing now.”

The Solar field of dreams and the dreamers. From left to right: Professor Costas Papanicolas, President of the Cyprus Institute, Mike Collins, CSIRO Mechanical Engineer, Wes Stein, CSIRO Solar Research Leader

The people who made it happen, from left to right: Professor Costas Papanicolas, President of the Cyprus Institute, Mike Collins, CSIRO Mechanical Engineer, Wes Stein, CSIRO Solar Research Leader

With a unique and smaller than usual design, our high-performance heliostats are well suited to the rugged terrain on Cyprus’ south coast. They also give the user more control over the intensity of the solar concentration and versatile installation.

Solar-thermal tower technology uses many mirrors (heliostats) that accurately track the sun, reflecting light towards a receiver on top of a tower which heats a fluid. The heated fluid is then used to drive a turbine for generating electricity and, in the case of the Cyprus Institute’s research, also powering a sea-water desalination plant.

As thermal energy can also be stored relatively cheaply compared to other technologies, there’s great potential for large-scale power generation regardless of when the sun is shining.

The experimental facility in Cyprus will be used for demonstration purposes by the Cyprus Institute. In the longer-term, we will be looking into the commercial use of the technology for other Mediterranean islands and the Middle East.

You can read more about the work we’re doing in solar and other renewable energy here.

Solar field of dreams. Credit: Cyprus Institute

Solar field of dreams. Credit: Cyprus Institute

Walking With Dinosaurs: Advanced science recreates ancient past

Dinosaur footprints in red sandstone

Mighty footprints with a view of Gantheaume Point, Broome. These replicas belong to a large carnivorous dinosaur. Image: © Matthias Breiter

On a sandy bank of north-western Australia, a flock of monstrous birds stride about in the shallow water — squishy, silty mud oozes up between their toes. Among their feathered numbers is a Woodstock of droppings, downy feathers, and clashing footprints. These birds are fearsome, toothed, tailed, and not birds at all, but their forebears: theropod dinosaurs, the group that contains the Velociraptor and T. rex.

The muddy sands that these animals walked in is now stone, and their tracks can be found up and down the 100 km stretch of the Dampier Peninsula coastline, also known as the ‘Dinosaur Coast’.

Those three toed bird-like theropod tracks are by no means the only prints around the coast. Some were also left behind by sauropods with feet that were 1.5 metres in diameter — that is 5’. At least 16 different types of dinosaurs left their impressions with thousands of tracks, even some from ghostly species for which there is no other evidence.

To garner all we can about these spectacular fossil tracks, the Walking with Dinosaurs in the Kimberley research project was born, funded through the Australian Research Council Discovery Project scheme. Headed up by Dr Steve Salisbury from The University of Queensland and Associate Professor Jorg Hacker from Airborne Research Australia at Flinders University, the project brings together an array of experienced and skilled groups including two of our researchers: Dr Robert Zlot, head of Robotic Perception, and George Poropat, Senior Principal Research Scientist in our Energy Flagship.

Together with Dr Mike Bosse from ETH, Zurich, the team is working closely with Goolarabooloo Traditional Custodians and Yawuru Native Title holders to help locate and map the tracks.

Our researchers have been helping the palaeontologists by documenting the 130 million year old tracks using sophisticated 3D imaging technology developed here in our Energy and Digital Productivity Flagships. They have also trained the Queensland team to use the equipment for independent expeditions with the resulting data being sent back to our scientists for processing.


The world to Zebedee, one of our 3D imaging technologies. Image captured by Anthony Romilio, data compiled by our researchers.

Since GPS data are imprecise, other more specialised devices and techniques are also required. The highest resolution data are gathered by a modified photomapping technology called Sirovision and extensions to some commercial packages. These data can be used to generate high-quality 3D outputs of the subject providing sub-millimetre scale models of footprints.

On a larger scale, Assoc. Prof. Hacker scans the tracks using a specially equipped low-flying aircraft, soaring just 10 m over the rock platforms. The aircraft captures mapping data (high-resolution photos, video, and lidar imagery) as it flies overhead. The data captured by this aircraft can be georeferenced with those from the Sirovision device, enabling data of different scales and resolutions to be integrated.

Airborne Research Australia – piloted by Associate Professor Jorg Hacker. Photo: Damian Kelly

And at yet another scale, we have the amazing Zebedee.

Zebedee is a handheld lidar (portmanteau of light-radar) that maps the environment as you walk. You simply meander through a site holding Zebedee as it beams out 2D ‘sheets’ of laser up to 15 metres into the environment. As it does so, it eagerly rocks back and forth on a spring, making those 2D sheets of information overlap again and again to form a dense and accurate 3D map of the environment. Zebedee initially arose from research into 3D mapping for autonomous robots.

Zebedee has been used to map crime scenes, heritage sites, the interior of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and now the footprints of reptiles past.

As well as using our nifty Zebedee, Dr Salisbury and the team have also been using a drone to map the prints from above, a perspective on the animals’ movements impossible from human height.

The tides along the coastline are extreme, at some points drawing back 10 metres down the rock platform before creeping back again. The team must do their work in just a few hours before the tides rise up.

A GIF of the rising tides while the team works. Photos: Steve Salisbury

As well as recreating the tracks with high fidelity, Zebedee and the other tools and techniques are integral for preserving these wonders. The tracks are ephemeral and are constantly being eroded by the relentless sea. “A number of tracks that we have documented last year have disappeared as a result of sand movements during the 2014-15 storm,” said Steve.

The Walking with Dinosaurs project is science at its finest: palaeontological rigour, traditional insight, and sophisticated aircraft and imaging equipment. By using these cutting-edge technologies, scientists are simultaneously preserving and recreating an ancient world that would be otherwise unimaginable.

To follow the project, Dr Salisbury (@implexidens) and Dr Romilio (@a_romilio) are on Twitter. For more information about our wonderful Zebedee, check out this page.

Out of the Dark Ages: How solar panels might make blackouts history

#SydneyStorm made it difficult for trees to upkeep their integrity. Our Newcastle solar fields. Picture: Mike Collins.

#SydneyStorm made it difficult for trees to upkeep their integrity. Our Newcastle solar fields. Picture: Mike Collins.

The East Coast Low of April 2015 has been devastating. Lives were lost, countless millions of dollars’ worth of damage and destruction to property was sustained, and hundreds of thousands of homes (along with important infrastructure) lost power.

Thankfully, the water is subsiding and emergency services are turning their focus from rescue missions to the clean-up. At the time of writing, electricity companies are still scrambling to restore power to homes and dozens of traffic lights are not operating in Newcastle and the surrounding areas. We’ve heard stories of barbecue-cooked meals and games of Monopoly by candlelight.

Many CSIRO staff, working from our Energy Centre in Newcastle, have been directly impacted by the extreme weather (author included!). The site itself was at one stage closed due to a loss of power and safety concerns; it’s back operating, but in a limited capacity.

Looking out the window at our solar thermal field, and you can’t help but be struck by the realisation that even the best of us still rely heavily on the central electricity grid.

But for how much longer?

The current model

Existing Australian power grids — in particular the National Electricity Market (NEM) grid — have evolved over the last 60 years. These systems were small in number, but had large and remote generators that provided power at high voltage through a transmission system connected to customers through a lower voltage distribution grid.

This system has one-way power flow; distribution networks divide power from large generators into small quantities for customers. But in natural disasters like the one we’ve just experienced, or during times of peak demand (in the summer months, for instance) the centralised nature of the grid can lead to mass power outages.

The future?

One in seven Australian homes now have solar panels on their roofs — one of the highest rates in the world. This ‘community-based’ approach is known as distributed generation, and it’s set to rise.

Distributed generation infographic

The promises and challenges of a distributed generation (DG) network.

So, could a grid of the future make widespread power outages (like the one we’re currently experiencing) a thing of the past?

According to Dr Sam Behrens, leader of our Demand Side Energy Technologies research group in Newcastle, it’s a definite possibility.

“With the uptake of new technology, we could see more and more individual houses — or even whole new estates — becoming more self-sufficient during these types of events”

“This would undoubtedly lessen the impact of widespread power outages like the one we’re experiencing in Newcastle and surrounds currently.”

This might align with one of the scenarios from our Future Grid Forum, where around one third of consumers disconnect from the grid by 2050. While this is only one of the possibilities, the ability to store energy is the real game-changer under all scenarios for reducing the impact of blackouts.

Leaving the grid scenario

Light years ahead – predictions of energy usage in 2050.

“The technology for storing solar power already exists and although it’s a bit expensive right now, companies like Samsung and Bosch are starting to mass produce these batteries, so I think we’re going to see costs come down dramatically in the next three or four years. It could be on a similar scale to the trend with solar panels, where costs came down one hundred fold in the last 10 years,” said Sam Behrens.

“The growing number of electric vehicles on the road now will also make a contribution, as they can be plugged into the house and used to provide back-up power during outages.”

For those who are in the dark as to what our site in Newcastle looks like/does, here’s a taste tester

Hold on to the Monopoly set for now, but future mass grid defection may be closer than you think.

For more information about our work on a smart, secure energy future, head to our website.

Keeping up with the Joneses: Who has the coolest house in the neighbourhood?

Ever wondered how hot your home gets in summer or how cold it is in winter? Think solar is a good idea but not quite sure if it would work on your roof? Wondering if it’s worth investing in a rainwater tank?

Now with a new interactive tool we helped develop called My Climate, residents of Melbourne’s City of Port Phillip can do their own internet-sleuthing to answer these questions. What’s more, this could kick-start a trend that would see residents around the country taking more responsibility for these types of decisions.

My Climate uses thermal mapping taken from aerial flyovers and seven temporary weather stations to show land surface temperatures, winter heat loss, rainfall and the solar potential of all buildings in the region.

My Climate can show heat loss during Winter.

My Climate displaying heat loss from residential homes.

Working with the City of Port Phillip and Monash University, we originally developed My Climate to inform urban planning decisions. It didn’t take long to realise how useful the data would be to the whole community.

“With this data you can calculate the most appropriate solar system for your home, where it would best be located and how much it could potentially save you in electricity costs and Co2 emissions. You can also measure rainfall and calculate the cost of improving your ceiling insulation,” Port Phillip Mayor Amanda Stevens says.

“If thermal imaging shows your neighbour’s home is cooler than yours, it may mean they have better insulation, or cool air from their air-conditioner is leaking outside the home.

“This easy-to-use tool has the potential to add real value to people’s homes and on a larger scale can help tackle the impacts of climate change.”

Dr Mahesh Prakash and his group from our Digital productivity Flagship helped develop the analytics and software component of the interactive tool. He says his team is now looking to expand My Climate to include other layers of information such as natural hazard hotspots and optimum tree coverage. He would also like to see it rolled out to other Councils.

Explore the My Climate tool on the City of Port Phillip website.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Our hearts beat for you… with about 1.6 Watts.


Solar research makes our hearts beat faster. [Image by Wendy Brian of]

By Tania Ritchie, Valentine’s Day 2013 

Aww. It’s Valentine’s Day today in many countries around the world, meaning the annual bombardment of hearts is upon us again: sugary-sweet hearts, super-sweet hearts, super-sized hearts and even some super-strange hearts. But the iconic curvy ‘love heart’ might have originated from a simplistic drawing of the human heart, which long ago was seen as the place in the body where the soul (and, presumably, romance) lived.

Nowadays, thanks to science, we have much less poetic notions about what the heart actually does (although, to compensate, what we know now is much, much more likely to save your life). We all know, for example, that the heart is the powerhouse that keeps your blood circulating.

So, just for fun, we thought that this Valentine’s Day it’d be fun to compare the power of the human heart to the power we can get from some of the different technologies we’re working at CSIRO.

The power of the heart

We can work out the average power of the heart by multiplying the peak pressure inside the heart (120 mmHg, or 16 kPa) by the rate of blood flow (say about 6 litres per minute, or 0.0001 m3/s). This gives us the magic number we’re going to use for the heart’s power: 1.6 Watts. Over the course of a day, this adds up to an energy output of 140 kJ (or 33 Cal) each day.

So we created a thing called the Heart-o-meter. It shows the power output of some of our energy technologies from our National Energy Centre in Newcastle, in a unit we’re pretty sure we’ve just pioneered here at CSIRO – equivalent human hearts. Aww. Who said science can’t be romantic?


You can see that yesterday the photovoltaic cells in our Virtual Power Station had a power output that equalled, at one point, the total number of people’s hearts in Newcastle. That’s a lot of love.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

This article was originally published in February 2013. 

5 ways high-tech light bulbs can brighten up your life

The new misfit light bulb. Source: Misfit

The new Misfit light bulb. Source: Misfit

By Simon Hunter

Last week hundreds of technology companies headed to Las Vegas for the biggest nerd-fest of the year – CES 2015 – to tout their wares and show off the latest and greatest gizmos.

From pilotless drones that follow you wherever you go to cars that you can park using a watch, the Jetsons would have felt very much at home at this year’s event.

Interestingly though, it was one of the oldest innovations that featured most prominently – the humble light bulb. In their quest to create smarter homes, companies have been finding new ways to integrate colour, connectivity and music into bulbs.

Here we take a look at five new types of lights bulbs that are bringing the sexy back into lighting:

1. Lightscapes

Misfit showed off its Bolt bulb which allows you to create different colour combinations and lightscapes around your home using an app on your phone.

2. Sound
Sony showed off a prototype of its Symphonic Light Speaker which has a built in speaker. It allows you to wirelessly control the bulb and stream music through it.

3. Security

The Sengled Snap Bulb goes one step further. They contain a speaker, microphone and a motion sensor allowing you to stream video to your phone and use the bulb as a security device.

4. Movies

Phillips showcased its Hue bulb which can integrate with movies and gaming to create different lighting around the TV screen.

5. Work, rest and play

Definity Digital has designed a range of bulbs, which they say could help you sleep better or be more alert depending on the time of day.

We’re turning on to smart light technology, too. Recently we took a look at how new materials like flexible electronics are influencing the way lights are designed:  check out the Plus Pendant, which is both smart and flexible. We’re also working on smarter ways to use energy in homes and buildings, including heating, cooling and through apps like Opticool which help to manage energy use in big buildings.


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