GREG RAY: Big ideas for posterity

IMAGINE a powerful, quick-start engine that can run on coal-slurry. Ideal to put at coal-fired power stations instead of gas turbines to help meet peak demand.

How about solar domestic air-conditioning, that works by diverting a little bit of energy from a solar hot water system?

Or a system to use solar power to break down natural gas into a liquid diesel fuel that could replace expensive imports?

If you like that kind of cleverness, take a trip to the CSIRO at Steel River, Newcastle, and prepare to come away both impressed and apprehensive.

Impressed, because the place is so swarming with brilliant ideas that you can’t jam a fair survey of them into a single visit.

Apprehensive, because you wonder whether Australia will be smart enough to make anything of this home-grown genius.

Herald environment reporter Matt Kelly invited me to join a small group that visited the CSIRO centre a couple of weeks ago, and at first I thought, oh yeah, ho hum.

But after about 20 minutes I realised this was so much bigger and smarter than pointing a bunch of mirrors at a tub of water and waiting for the steam. There is that, of course, but what we’ve got at CSIRO is a heap of clever, friendly people, thinking about the future in a hundred different ways.

And the best part is that they are well aware of each other’s work, and are looking for ways to help one another by combining their own discoveries with those of their colleagues.

By breaking down barriers between disciplines and projects, you get coal experts working with solar experts and computer experts and power grid experts and natural gas experts and battery experts and liquid salt experts and  ...  like I said, you could go on about it for days.

The coal slurry engine was a surprise to me. Actually, it was just a big, black, standard diesel motor, sitting up like a bit of old-tech in a basement.

But it doesn’t run on diesel. It runs, instead, on finely ground bits of coal mixed with water. That fuel doesn’t catch fire very easily, which makes it fairly safe to have around.

Its huge advantages are its low price, in terms of dollars per energy content, the ease of manufacture and the fact that you can spin it up in no time flat, compared to a standard power station turbine that takes many hours or even days to get up to speed.

The first thing that occurred to me was that these things ought to be standard issue at every coal-fired power station, along with a little plant for grinding up the coal to make the slurry fuel.

I loved the solar-powered air-conditioner. When it becomes available commercially I think I want one, if the price is right. Apparently a private firm has signed a deal to market these.

And the “solar gas” idea was impressive, in a big picture way.

Imagine a few solar plants in nice sunny places like Mildura or Broken Hill, taking a natural gas feed from a pipeline and breaking it down into diesel.

It could be cheaper than imports, release Australia from at least part of the iron grip of the big foreign oil companies and give us a new export industry.

It could even provide our domestic airlines some breathing space by cutting the price of aviation fuel, and I gather those talks have already started to happen.

Trouble is, to build a plant that would crank out enough diesel to be economic would require a fair bit of capital.

If we had a sovereign wealth fund like the one Norway built on the back of its oil and gas, I’d say it should fund our first commercial-scale solar-gas plant.

We don’t have a fund like that, of course, but if the CSIRO is right in its calculations, this ought to be a good earner for somebody.

And let’s not even start on solar paint, super batteries and liquid salt heat sinks.

All right here under our noses.