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April 13, 2012

Enabling a closed thermal cycle for power plants using core shell nanoparticles

Argonne National Laborartory - nanoparticles based on what is known as a “core-shell” configuration, in which a solid outer coat protects an inner layer that can melt above a certain temperature will be mixed with the coolant water of a thermal power plant (coal, natural gas or nuclear). Once dispersed in the plant’s water supply, the nanoparticles are able to absorb heat during the thermal cycle. After partially melting, the particles travel to the cooling tower where they resolidify. The system is closed and designed to ensure against leakage of the plant’s water or steam into the environment.

If this works they will be able to used a fixed amount of coolant water with the nanoparticles to enhance the heat exchange. No water would be leaked or added to the cooling system.

In order to operate, electrical plants use a cycle that uses partially condensed high-temperature steam to turn a large turbine. During generation, a significant quantity of this steam is lost due to evaporation. “In every cycle, there’s a significant amount of water that we can’t recapture,” said Argonne materials scientist Dileep Singh, who is working to develop the specialized nanoparticles.

At the molecular level, Singh and his colleagues are especially concerned with the surface of the nanoparticles, as the chemistry at the boundary between the metal and the water determines how much heat the particles can take up. “We’re experimenting with looking at the bonding between the particles and the water molecules,” he said.

“What we really want to know is how much heat we can pick up given a constant amount of water to cool the system,” he added. “Environmentally responsible energy growth involves worrying about how you manage your water resources.”

Argonne is working with the Electric Power Research Institute and other partners to move this basic technology quickly through the developmental pipeline. Initial plans call for the demonstration of proof of concept to commence this year and full-scale commercial deployment to begin in four years. “It’s practically unheard of for industry to seek to deploy a new technology so quickly,” Ewing said. “However, water consumption is a major issue that limits the expansion of power. If we want to solve the energy crisis, we’ll have to move boldly.”




The vast quantities of water that are needed to operate these facilities will necessitate the mass production of the nanoparticles once they are commercially developed, a fact that could potentially complicate the research and development process, said Argonne associate division director Thomas Ewing. “As we begin lab testing, we need to keep in mind the costs and issues associated with making this work in a real live power plant,” he said. “There are lots of tradeoffs to take into account.”

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