While one can always look for new sources of renewable energy, there is a lot to be said for simply improving the efficiency of current systems. That is what researchers at the Sandia National Laboratoriesare working on by developing a gas turbine system that should increase thermal-to-electric conversion efficiency by as much as 50 percent. This could see a dramatic improvement for nuclear powered stations, which use steam turbines to generate energy.

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The research team is using supercritical carbon dioxide (S-CO2) to not only reduce costs, but increase efficiency on their design. The system, called Brayton-cycle turbines, would ideally replace the steam-driven Rankine-cycle turbines, which not only have lower efficiency but are corrosive at high temperatures. These old designs are also massive and occupy 30 times as much space because of the need for very large turbines and condensers. By comparisson, the Brayton-cycle yields 20 megawatts of electricity and only takes up four cubic meters.

The Brayton-cycle, named after George Brayton, uses heated air and directs it in a particular direction – much like jet engines.

“This machine is basically a jet engine running on a hot liquid,” said principal investigator Steve Wright of Sandia’s Advanced Nuclear Concepts group. “There is a tremendous amount of industrial and scientific interest in supercritical CO2 systems for power generation using all potential heat sources including solar, geothermal, fossil fuel, biofuel and nuclear.

With other companies working on similar systems, the technology is set to be a game-changer in the energy-generating industry. The only question is who will dominate the market first. Wright, however, has confidence in his team.

“Sandia is not alone in this field, but we are in the lead,” Wright said. “We’re past the point of wondering if these power systems are going to be developed; the question remains of who will be first to market.”

+ Sandia National Laboratories

via e! Science News