Sicily has just announced the opening of the world’s first concentrated solar power (CSP) facility that uses molten salt as a heat collection medium. Since molten salt is able to reach very high temperatures (over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit) and can hold more heat than the synthetic oil used in other CSP plants, the plant is able to continue to produce electricity even after the sun has gone down.

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While photovoltaic solar panels work by directly producing electricity from sunlight, CSP plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and produce high temperatures in order to drive a turbine to generate electricity. CSP plants have been in existence for many years, but the Archimede plant is the first instance of a facility that uses molten salt as the collection medium.

Heat from the molten salt is used to boil water and drive the turbines, just like other fossil fuel plants. CSP plants use the same kind of steam turbines as typical fossil fueled power plants. This makes it possible to supplement existing power plants with CSP or even to retrofit plants to change over to clean energy producing technology. Some existing CSP plants have used molten salt storage in order to extend their operation, but the collectors have relied on oil as the heat collection medium. This has necessitated two heat transfer systems (one for oil-to-molten-salt, and the other for molten-salt-to-steam) which increases the complexity and decreases the efficiency of the system. The salts used in the system are also environmentally benign, unlike the synthetic oils used in other CSP systems.

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Since molten salts solidify at around 425 degrees F, the system needs to maintain sufficient heat to keep from seizing up during periods of reduced sunlight. The receiver tubes in the Archimede facility are designed to maximize energy collection and minimize emissions with a vacuum casing that enables the system to work at very high temperatures required with molten salts. By using the higher temperatures of molten salts, instead of oil, which has been used in other CSP plants until this point, the plant is able to maintain capacity well after the sun sets, allowing it to continue generating power through the night.

The Archimede plant has a capacity of 5 megawatts with a field of 30,000 square meters of mirrors and more than 3 miles of heat collecting piping for the molten salt. The cost for this initial plant was around 60 million Euros.

Via Guardian UK

Images via: Angelantoni, The Engineer UK, Siemens