Sandia Labs uses solar power to roast green chile

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A longtime chile farmer – who is also a scientist – is working make green chile even greener.

“I’m a third generation chile farmer,” said Ken Armijo. “Like it’s ingrained in my blood. I tell people like my blood type is red chile, because it’s been there for so long.

Armijo is also an engineer and scientist for Sandia National Lab.

“We roast chiles and we love that smell, and you’re going to Albertons, Walmart and a host of other places, but I was wondering, could we do that without having to utilize fossil fuels like propane for actually facilitating combustion to make roasted chilies?”

According to Sandia Labs, New Mexico emits close to 7,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year from roasting chile with propane – that’s the same as driving 1,700 cars for a year.

So, with some tools and the roof of the solar thermal test facility at Sandia – Ken found another way to roast.

“New Mexico has one of the highest potentials for making solar power and solar thermal applications possible, and one of those is solar roasting,” Armijo said.

The concept is simple – using sunlight to make heat.

“The heat is used similarly, like fossil fuels for heating up a fluid to a hot temperature, which ultimately turns a turbine on a generator that makes electricity,” he said.

Then, he uses mirrors to concentrate the heat.

“These heliostat mirrors, I put enough of them where each one of them has a little beam, like a magnifying glass,” Armijo said.

As for the results, Armijo said they did do a taste test.

“We did some surveys after, with a number of participants who actually tried the chile peppers, in terms of taste, feel, peelability, smell,” he said. “And overwhelmingly, all the participants favored the solar-roasted chile over the propane-roasted chile. They said it had a cleaner taste to it.”

Armijo said Sandia Labs is working on funding for another solar roast in the fall, as well as designs for portable solar roasters.

“Then you could just roast away at a farmers market, at the state fair, or wherever else you’d like roast chile,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, even though it’s not propane, you can still have that same pungent and beautiful smelling green chile – it’s just without carbon emissions.”