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New Supercritical Steam World Record For Solar Plant Efficiency “Like Breaking The Sound Barrier”

Heliostat Test Facility Breaks World Record

Currently most of the world’s energy is generated using fossil fuels and we are looking for a “bridge” to 2050 when most energy can be produced via zero emission renewable resources such as the sun. At a solar thermal test plant in Newcastle, Australia, the day when the world can begin “dialing down” fossil fuels may come sooner due to recent breakthroughs in the use of “supercritical steam”.

The study was launched by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and consists of two test plants which concentrate sunlight from 600 mirrors onto receiver towers where water is heated to produce steam and run turbines.

The new plants have broken the world record for steam production, generating supercritical steam at a pressure of 23.5 megapascal (mpa) or (3,400 psi) and 1,058°F (570°C). This new development, with its combination of pressure and temperature on a large scale, means solar energy can now be converted to electricity more efficiently than ever at a cost rivaling fossil fuels.

Supercritical Steam To Revolutionize Solar Energy

Efficiency is the currency of a successful and profitable industrial operation. In the area of steam generation liquid water and vapor are formed inside a system. When water is converted to steam its volume expands 1,000 times its original volume traveling through steam pipes at over 62 miles an hour (100 km/h). This creates turbulence such as the formation of steam bubbles that significantly reduce efficiency.

Industrial operations around the world that rely on steam are seeking greater efficiency. For example the world is depending on desalination plants to provide fresh water for billions experiencing drought and water shortages. However, inefficiencies in the desalination process hamper attempts to deploy desalination more widely.

History Of Boiler Design

Beginning in Victorian times wrought-iron was used to build boilers and they were assembled using rivets. Copper took over and was used for decades but the high price of the metal made it uneconomical and cheaper materials such as steel Took its place.

In 1882 Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour discovered supercritical fluids while experimenting with sealed cannon barrels filled with fluids at high temperatures. In short, he found that supercritical fluid exhibits properties somewhere between those of gases and liquids and is considered the state most dense in potential energy. When supercritical fluids are used the total energy in a thermodynamic system is maximized.

Today, many manufacturing processes such as decaffeination of coffee, the creation of floral fragrances, the manufacture of food ingredients, pharmaceuticals, polymers, fossil and bio-fuels and microelectronics use supercritical processes. An example is the deposit of nano structure films and particles of metals onto surfaces.

In 1922, Mark Benson received a patent for a boiler design that converted water into steam at high pressure; this is now known as the Benson System. The Benson system has been used for more than a century in myriad ways with advances over time, such as improving thermal efficiency by increasing operating pressure, using new chrome and nickel-based alloys and more efficient turbines and piping systems.

Also over time steam production and storage and energy generation have become safer as early models buckled under high pressure, dislodging boiler tubes and spraying scalding hot steam and smoke and injuring occupants and firemen.

Also cast iron, used for decades was brittle and insufficient as designers sought higher pressure steam boilers.

Big Breakthrough For Renewable Solar Energy

Supercritical power plants use boilers and turbines operating at 1,075°F and improvement over subcritical plants that operate at 850°F.

Supercritical power plants can be built at a price that is just 2% higher than subcritical plants. Nearly all plants being built today use ultra efficient steam turbine technology. Finally supercritical plants operate at higher temperatures and pressures and thereby achieve higher efficiencies with significant reduction in CO2 output. Finally, current subcritical plants are being modified to operate on supercritical steam.

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