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Rensselaer's solar tech increases conversion efficiency by 60%

Posted: 06 Jun 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:magnetohydrodynamics? conversion efficiency? solar power?

It is estimated that by 2050, there will be 8 to 10 billion people competing for the Earth's dwindling supply of fossil fuels. Major advanced in energy technology will be required to meet this need.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's answer to this challenge is an exclusive license agreement with Concentrating Solar Power Utility for a new solar power technology utilizing what is known as magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). The technology uses superconducting magnets to increase the efficiency of conversion from sunlight to electricity by stripping electrons from high-energy plasma jets and thereby generating power with no moving parts.

How MHD works

MHD generates electricity directly from a body of very hot moving ionized gas without any mechanical moving parts. Solar energy, concentrated by mirrors and lenses, creates superheated gases; magnetohydrodynamics works by using superconducting magnets to extract electricity from the superheated moving ionized gas.

The three co-inventors are Concentrating Solar Power Utility founder Thomas P. Kay and two Rensselaer faculty members: Douglas Chrisey, professor in the department of materials science and engineering and the department of biomedical engineering; and Yoav Peles, associate professor in the department of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering.

Magnetohydrodynamics is derived from the terms magneto meaning magnetic field; hydro meaning liquid; and dynamics meaning movement. MHD uses magnets and plasma to extract electricity from superheated charged gas, and allows the generation of power directly from a body of hot gas without the need for any moving parts. A key benefit of MHD is its ability to operate at higher temperatures, which makes it a strong fit to use in solar power generation.

"In developing this technology, the use of the extremely large superconducting permanent magnets will improve efficiency, and this is even more so when combined with the micro-channel cooling process developed by Professor Peles," said Chrisey.

Applications of MHD

MHD works by using magnets to extract electricity from superheated charged gas. In a sense MHD replaces the wires used in conventional electrical generators with ionized gas. The system can also run on biodiesel or jet fuel jp54 and can also be used as a topping cycle to improve the efficiency to existing power plants.

The team has been working on the project for more than two years. Some of their joint work was, in turn, based on two earlier MHD patents held by Kay.

"Because of the higher temperature, generated solar MHD is more efficient than other types of solar thermal technologies that work at a much lower temperature. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that to generate power from a heat source, such as a burning fuel, the higher the temperature, the more efficient it will be, and that is the key advantage of this green technology," said Kay, who has worked in solar power since the 1970s.

"We are delighted to partner with Concentrating Solar Power Utility," said Ron Kudla, executive director of the office of intellectual property, technology transfer, and new ventures at Rensselaer. "This is an excellent example of progress under The Rensselaer Plan in the area of clean energy and technology transfer that demonstrates Rensselaer's unique strength in its ability to translate scientific discoveries into practical application."

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