Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sustainability Drinks

There’s a lively group called “Sustainability Drinks” in Sydney.  They meet monthly and hear a few short presentations from people working in the sustainability industry.  I was an invited speaker last night, and this is what I said to the audience of around 120 people …
My name is Noel Barton, although on Fridays I call myself Geoff.  That’s a complicated story I can explain later.
I was originally an applied mathematician, finishing my studies with a PhD at the University of Western Australia in 1973.  I had a post-doctoral scholarship at the University of Cambridge (UK), then teaching stints at the University of Queensland and University of NSW (1975-81).  From 1981 to 2003 I worked for CSIRO, where I had a varied and good career, initially as a researcher and subsequently as leader of CSIRO’s applied mathematicians for a dozen years.  The job involved industrial applications of mathematics, a concept that occupied me for two decades.
I was also Director of the 5th International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics, held in Sydney in 2003.  The event, the biggest mathematical conference ever held in Australia, attracted about 1900 registrations.  As a result, I’m an Ambassador of Business Events Sydney, the group with responsibility to attract conferences and exhibitions to Sydney.  That’s a big business.
In 2003, at age 55, I came to a point of career renewal.  Should I re-invent myself inside CSIRO?  Or break out?  As it happened, my children were fully educated and independent, and I’d had a nasty health scare a couple of years earlier.  I was able to take an early retirement option and follow my passion, which was to become an inventor, mainly in new concepts for solar thermal power generation.
There’s a very nice book about happiness written by Martin Seligman – you look for pleasure and gratification at the basic level (well I already had that!), then move on to exercise of your strengths and virtues (my inventive and mathematical skills) and finally to meaning and purpose (doing something worthwhile).  So the role of an inventor in solar energy really appealed.
I set up my own business, Sunoba Pty Ltd.  In 2004 I invented and subsequently patented a completely new thermodynamic cycle for power generation; it’s based on evaporative cooling of hot air at reduced pressure.  I made a theoretical analysis of the concept and built an experimental engine to verify the theory.  But my experimental engine had a terrible operating mechanism and I had no funds for development of the improved mechanism I’d invented.  I spent several years looking for investors, but wasn’t able to convince anyone that the engine was worthwhile.  And, to be honest, the engine was big, under-powered and needed lots of water for operation.
Eventually I abandoned work on the evaporation engine.  I now regard the episode as an excellent learning experience, but you might hear me wince with pain as I relate the story!
ll was not lost however.  As part of my research program I’d been working on storage of solar thermal energy in pebble beds.  I realised that a form of the Brayton-cycle engine could be integrated with pebble bed storage to give a very promising concept for solar thermal power generation.  The expected Levelised Cost of Electricity was good, there was storage for operation after dark and the possibility for co-firing with other fuels.
That’s my current focus, and it’s still looking good a few years later.  With the assistance of investors, I hope to carry out experiments on a small engine later this year.  If the tests are successful, we’ll move on to bigger things.
We all know about the rapid growth of PV.  Some argue that solar thermal power generation will be killed off by PV together with new forms of battery storage.  I don’t agree with that.  Solar thermal power generation has excellent storage capabilities and allows for co-firing so as to give on-demand despatchable power, even when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow for weeks at a time.  I think those attributes will find a place in the 100% renewable energy systems of the future. 
In any case, I have a wise inventor friend who says you don’t have to save the world – just find a profitable solution in one tiny niche of the world’s vast energy system!
I’m always happy to have conversations about solar thermal power generation, just get in touch.
I’ll finish with two remarks:
I’m currently Convenor of the Sydney Central Chapter of the Australian Solar Council.  Our main activity is to hold Information Evenings on the 4th Tuesday of each month and we’re always looking for speakers.  Just get in touch with me if you would like to attend or speak.
Finally, I run a blog, which you can see at  In trying to attract investors for a new invention in power generation, you always get the same questions:
  • What is this technology?
  • How well does it work?
  • How much does it cost?
  • How does it compare to other technologies?
I needed to answer those questions, so I started to collect information on the cost of solar projects.  I have now analysed the LCOE for 52 solar projects worldwide.  The blog also analyses a couple of tidal projects and one geothermal project.  The database and results are available to all, just visit the blog,

You'll also see other quirky things there, such as when our fossil fuels will run out, the real cost of coal-fired power, life-cycle analyses for batteries, the cost of battery storage, beyond-Carnot heat pumps, and my favourite – if you burn 1 kg of coal, how much heat will be trapped by CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere?  And how does that compare to the heat generated by combustion?

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