SPOTLIGHT ON: Steve Heaton, Star Scientific CTO

Steve Heaton, Star Scientific
Steve Heaton

A new technology developed by Star Scientific could be the future of the Australian energy grid, and others around the world. Star Scientific’s chief technology officer Steve Heaton explains how it works and its diverse applications.

By Nichola Davies, Energy Source & Distribution magazine

Steve Heaton is the chief technology officer at Star Scientific, a scientific research company based in Gordon, NSW that has been for nearly 20 years investigating possible solutions on how humanity can transition to a new energy economy.

Steve grew up in the city of Lake Macquarie in NSW and spent a lot of time as a kid on the lake, sailing and paddling. He started his career in programming, moved into networking and then found himself in project management.

“I later spent some time running large multi-million dollar property-based projects for a large financial institution,” Steve says.

Star Scientific

“During that time, I managed to squeeze in starting a family and doing my MSc in Astronomy at Swinburne University.

“Radio astronomy and galaxy dynamics remain a passion.”

An exceedingly rare role for a research scientist came up on Sydney’s Central Coast, and Steve saw it as a way to move back closer to his roots and escape the rat race of the big city of Sydney.

“I met with Stephen Horvath, the founder of Star Scientific, and we had the first of many lively discussions about fusion,” Steve says.

“I’d done some work on high energy astrophysics during my degree and this provided the background for my support of Star Scientific’s work on Muon Catalysed Fusion (MCF).”

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Stephen Horvath played a crucial role in the development of a unique approach to MCF.

“[He] developed an approach that addresses perhaps the biggest issue with MCF – the loss of the muon catalyst to the by-product alpha particle; the ‘alpha sticking’ problem as it’s known,” Steve says.

Building on this led to the development of the company’s breakthrough technology, HERO.

“While working on the MCF project we were loading a form of hydrogen into a metal, as a precursor to starting fusion. This involves changing the ‘2’ in H2 to become just two Hs,” Steve says.

“Being a big fan of spacecraft design, I know that hydrogen and oxygen are a good rocket fuel. If you could perform a similar trick with oxygen and put those types of components together in the same place at the same time, allow them to react, then you could have a source of significant heat.

“At this point my chemistry knowledge ran dry but my colleague, Sam Kirk, is a talented chemist, so I ran the idea past him. After a few lively whiteboard sessions, he concluded that it might be feasible and was at least worth a try.”

Star Scientific

The HERO technology was invented over the course of the last three years and possesses a wide range of applications from power generation to industrial heating or desalination.

Steve explains how HERO works from a scientific perspective, stating, “The catalyst is usually applied to a metal substrate in the form of a coating. The heat is then transferred, primarily via conduction, through the substrate.

“From a room temperature start, HERO can reach in excess of 700°C in around three minutes. The temperature can be controlled based on the amount of hydrogen, oxygen and catalyst involved.

“When applied to power generation, the substrate would conductively transfer the heat to a working fluid. For example, we have shown HERO can sustain saturated steam production and we’ve successfully explored applying it to a small helium loop. HERO will run continuously when supplied with hydrogen and oxygen.

“It’s also worth pointing out that our output, pure water, can become our fuel when split through an electrolyser. In this way, the hydrogen acts as an energy storage system. Our HERO technology then uses that stored potential when and where it’s most needed.”

Star Scientific

One of the key benefits of applying HERO to power generation is that it can be viewed as ‘unconventional thermal generation’. 

“In ‘conventional’ thermal generation, we are typically talking about fossil fuel combustion to spin a turbine. The current grid was designed for this type of generation. The turbine is a ‘spinning mass’ that provides inertia, help keeping the power delivery smooth,” Steve says.

“We see a growing amount of concern from the various statutory authorities in Australia about the effects on the grid from the new variable sources of generation (solar PV and wind).

“These generators aren’t thermal and therefore don’t use traditional turbines. The concern runs so deep that a number of these new power generation developers have been required to add synchronous condensers, a spinning mass, to their package.

“The apparent objective is to make their generation appear to the grid like thermal generation. This requirement is a topic of ‘lively debate’, to say the least!

“HERO has all the desirable and useful features valued of thermal generation, including spinning mass, but without the undesirable carbon footprint.”

HERO therefore has enormous potential in facilitating Australia’s transition to a clean energy future, and in other regions across the world.

In coal power plants, HERO can replace the coal-fired boiler as a heat source to generate the steam that keeps the turbines spinning. HERO will match the output of the existing steam source and no other infrastructure at the plant needs to be touched.

“In this way, HERO will allow coal-fired power station operators to transition to a clean source of electricity using existing infrastructure and do away with all the associated overheads such as ash handling and emission scrubbing. That’s a significant cost saving,” Steve says.

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Currently Star Scientific is undertaking a feasibility study at Australia’s largest power station, the coal-fired Eraring station owned by Origin Energy. The study will investigate a wide range of aspects in relation to the implementation of HERO technology in power stations including commercial, legal, engineering, regulatory and environmental aspects. The results of this will identify the areas that need attention so the technology can progress to the next development stage.

As well as slotting into existing coal-fired power stations, HERO technology can firm intermittent power generation sources such as wind and solar as well as provide increased flexibility where power plants can be built due to its zero-emission output.

Star Scientific

“We will no longer have to place huge power stations great distances away to avoid polluting the suburbs; HERO can place the power closer to where it’s needed,” Steve says.

“Using HERO, the new [energy] player can also look at remote, off-grid locations from the outback to around the globe. There are a lot of places with great renewable energy potential that are currently running on diesel.

“HERO could be a great option for switching to local, independent power generation.”

The HERO technology has been run thousands of times and the underlying phenomenon has been independently verified by the University of Newcastle in an unsponsored evaluation.

“On the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale we’re currently at about 5.5 moving quickly towards six, which is moving from the lab to an engineering pilot,” Steve says.

“Star Scientific has a pending patent for the technology and the HERO name is a registered trademark in numerous countries worldwide.”

In five years, Steve says he can see HERO running an number of increasingly larger scale power generation pilots, and in 10 years HERO will have played an important role in facilitating the energy transition globally.

“Greenhouse gas emissions from power generation will have dropped dramatically. The phase out of coal-fired generation, in particular, will be close to completion,” Steve says of the HERO’s next decade.

“HERO will have been adopted across a very wide range of applications – pretty much any situation requiring heat. We will be delivering that heat with zero emissions, which will again have a huge impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”