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Scientists say Australia shines for solar

A map of the earth's sunniest locations reveals that Australia is truly a sunburnt country, with plenty of solar energy to spare.

A map of the earth's sunniest locations reveals that Australia is truly a sunburnt country, with plenty of solar energy to spare.

The map, produced by researchers, the Ecole des Mines de Paris, using satellite data collected over the past 22 years, shows the average amount of solar radiation that reaches the earth's surface.

The sunniest locations on earth include the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Sahara Desert in Niger, Tibet, and almost all of Australia.

Data from maps such as these could be used to assist in the deployment of solar energy technologies such as photovoltaic panels and solar-hydrogen technology, seen as a viable alternative to fossil fuel energy.

Members from the 72-nation Group on Earth Observations (GEO) are currently meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, to discuss how scientific data from this map and other data like it could be applied to issues such as climate change, health, agriculture and energy.

"We are trying to link up observations of the earth to benefit society," GEO head Jose Achache told Reuters.

The results also confirm the findings of a report published by CSIRO's National Solar Energy Centre in 2001, saying Australia had the highest average solar radiation of any continent.

Dr Leigh Sheppard, of the University of NSW's Centre for Materials Research, believes an area approximately 160 kilometres square, or one-third the size of Kangaroo Island, could provide all of Australia's energy needs.

He also believes that using solar energy and titanium dioxide to produce hydrogen, by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen gas, would be the cleanest, greenest energy option for a sustainable economy.

"When you burn (hydrogen), it gives water, so there is no pollution of the environment," Dr Sheppard said. Using hydrogen as a fuel source is not a new technology, as hydrogen fuel cells were used on NASA Apollo moon missions. Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity, and so would only be compatible with electric cars.

"The process has the additional advantage that it works best in sea water. Australia is rich in titanium, has abundant sunshine, and we are surrounded by ocean," Dr Sheppard said.

World leader
Australian is known as a world leader in renewable energy research. Universities such as of the University of NSW have long had programs in renewable energy, however many Australian renewable energy graduates have left to go overseas where there is greater funding and a more favourable regulatory environment for renewable energy.

Famously, Dr Shi Zhengrong graduated from the UNSW's school of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering in 1991 and then left to develop a solar company in China, Suntech Power. Forbes now estimates his wealth at US$2.2 billion.

With the issue of climate change continuing to heat up, the world's environment ministers will next week meet in Bali, Indonesia. They plan to discuss a long-term pact to fight climate change, which should result in a stronger push towards renewable energies such as solar power.