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August 01, 2011

MIT team designs concentrated solar thermal system that could store heat in vats of molten salts

Diagram shows the idealized arrangement of a vat of molten salt used to store solar heat, located at the base of a gently-sloping hillside that could be covered with an array of steerable mirrors all guided to focus sunlight down onto the vat.
Image: Courtesy of Alexander Slocum et al.


MIT team designs concentrated solar thermal system that could store heat in vats of molten salts, supplying constant power.



Alexander Slocum and a team of researchers at MIT have created a system that combines heating and storage in a single tank, which would be mounted on the ground instead of in a tower. The heavily insulated tank would admit concentrated sunlight through a narrow opening at its top, and would feature a movable horizontal plate to separate the heated salt on top from the colder salt below. (Salts are generally used in such systems because of their high capacity for absorbing heat and their wide range of useful operating temperatures.) As the salt heated over the course of a sunny day, this barrier would gradually move lower in the tank, accommodating the increasing volume of hot salt. Water circulating around the tank would get heated by the salt, turning to steam to drive a turbine whenever the power is needed.

The team analyzed two potential sites for CSPonD on hillsides near White Sands, N.M., and China Lake, Calif. By beaming concentrated sunlight toward large tanks of sodium-potassium nitrate salt — each measuring 25 meters across and five meters deep — two installations could each provide 20 megawatts of electricity 24/7, which is enough to supply about 20,000 homes. The systems could store enough heat, accumulated over 10 sunny days, to continue generating power through one full cloudy day.

While exact costs are difficult to estimate at this early stage of research, an analysis using standard software developed by the U.S. Department of Energy suggests costs between seven and 33 cents per kilowatt-hour. At the lower end, that rate could be competitive with conventional power sources.

The team has carried out small-scale tests of CSPonD's performance, but its members say larger tests will be needed to refine the engineering design for a full-scale powerplant. They hope to produce a 20- to 100-kilowatt demonstration system to test the performance of their tank, which in operation would reach temperatures in excess of 500 degrees Celsius.

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