The University of Adelaide has taken a step closer to developing next-generation solar thermal technologies that aim to reduce industry's reliance on natural gas.

The $15.1m research project, which is supported by $4.5m in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), aims to integrate both current and next-generation solar thermal technologies into the refining process in the plants of key industry partner Alcoa and elsewhere.

Alcoa is the world’s leading producer of alumina (aluminium oxide), which is used in a wide range of industrial processes and products. Alcoa currently supplies 15% of the international alumina market.

"Anticipated cost increases of natural gas and other non-renewable energy sources, and the carbon footprint associated with their consumption, mean that alternative, next-generation solar technologies are becoming more appealing to industry," says project leader Professor Gus Nathan, Director of the Centre for Energy Technology in the University of Adelaide’s Institute for Mineral and Energy Resources.

"This new project builds on our expertise in concentrating solar thermal (CST) technologies, which harness the power of the sun to generate alternative liquid fuels from carbon-rich sources, including agricultural residues.

"The University has been developing these technologies for many years now, and we believe such innovation in hybrid solar energy for the solarised production of mineral products and liquid fuels offers significant opportunities for industry," Professor Nathan says.

The funding from ARENA will enable the research team and its partners to identify a cost-effective way to integrate hybrid solar thermal technologies into one of Alcoa’s Western Australian-based refineries and beyond.

"There is huge potential for decreasing the reliance on non-renewable fuels and reducing greenhouse emissions through the use of our technologies and those of our partners," Professor Nathan says.

"The knowledge gained from this project will also have the potential to benefit other mining and minerals processing operations in Australia and overseas."

The total value of the project is more than $15 million, with further cash and in-kind support from the University and its industry and research partners.

Partners involved in this project are Alcoa, CSIRO, ETH Zurich, Hatch, IT Power, San Diego State University, and the University of New South Wales.