Scientists in Germany flipped the switch Thursday on what's being described as "the world's largest artificial sun" and which they hope will help shed light on new ways of making climate-friendly hydrogen fuel. The giant honeycomb-like setup of 149 spotlights—officially known as "Synlight"—in Juelich, west of Cologne, uses xenon short-arc lamps normally found in cinemas to simulate the natural sunlight that's often in short supply in Germany at this time of year. By focusing the entire array on a single 8x8 inch spot, scientists from the German Aerospace Center, or DLR, will be able to produce the equivalent of 10,000 times the amount of solar radiation that would normally shine on the same surface, the AP reports.
Creating such furnace-like conditions—with temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Celsius (5,432 Fahrenheit)—is key to testing novel ways of making hydrogen, says Bernhard Hoffschmidt, chief of DLR's Institute for Solar Research. Since hydrogen doesn't occur naturally, it first has to be made by splitting water into its two components in a process that currently requires large amounts of electricity. Researchers hope to bypass the electricity stage by tapping into the vast amount energy that reaches Earth in the form of sunlight. Hoffschmidt says that once researchers have mastered hydrogen-making techniques, they aim to scale the process up tenfold—and eventually switch to using real sunlight. (Read more solar power stories.)