Making Power Generation Systems More Efficient to Tackle Our CO2 Problem

The human identity might be constructed upon many different elements, but honestly speaking, none can claim to be more defining for us than our willingness to grow on a consistent basis. This pledge to get better at every step has notably brought the world some huge milestones, with technology emerging as quite a major member of the group. The reason why we hold technology in such high regard is, by and large, predicated upon its skill-set, which guided us towards a reality that nobody could have ever imagined otherwise. Nevertheless, if we look beyond the surface for one hot second, it will become abundantly clear how the whole runner was also very much inspired from the way we applied those skills across a real world environment. The latter component, in fact, did a lot to give the creation a spectrum-wide presence, and as a result, initiate a full-blown tech revolution. Of course, this revolution eventually went on to scale up the human experience through some outright unique avenues, but even after achieving a feat so enormous, technology will somehow continue to bring forth the right goods. The same has turned more and more evident in recent times, and assuming one new discovery ends up with the desired impact, it will only put that trend on a higher pedestal moving forward.

The researching team at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has successfully developed a coating, which is designed to make steam condensers, used in fossil fuel steam-cycle generation, more efficient. Before we get into the new development, though, we first need to understand the stated steam-cycle generation process and its primary use case. Used to generate fossil fuel power, it involves burning the fuel to boil water. The steam emerging from doing so spins a turbine and the turbine drives an electric generator, but that’s not the end point. Instead, the steam then reaches a condenser that reclaims the water from it, while simultaneously maintaining a pressure difference across the turbine so the steam can flow. Now, although the process as it is works just fine, it has been known since long that improving the condensers’ heat transfer properties would allow a pressure difference to be maintained, and at the same time, it would require us to burn significantly less fuel. This is where University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s latest brainchild comes in. Made using fluorinated diamond-like carbon, or F-DLC, the new coating enhances heat transfer because the material is hydrophobic. Hence, when the steam condenses into water, it does not form a thin film that coats the surface like water does on many clean metals and their oxides, but it forms droplets on the F-DLC surface, thus placing the steam in straight contact with the condenser and allowing heat to be directly transferred. Such a system becomes all the more significant once you take into account a widely-held belief that if coal and natural gas power generation were 2% more efficient, then every year we’ll release 460 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide and utilize 2 trillion fewer gallons of water.

“The reality is that fossil fuels aren’t going away for at least 100 years,” said Nenad Miljkovic, a professor of mechanical science & engineering at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the project lead. “A lot of CO2 is going to be emitted before we get to a place where we can lean on renewables. If our F-DLC coating were adopted globally, it would noticeably curtail carbon emissions and water usage for the existing power infrastructure.”

The researchers have already conducted initial tests on their discovery where they subjected coated metals to steam condenser conditions for 1,095 days, qualifying for the longest test ever reported in the literature. Going by the available details, they found the coated metals maintained their hydrophobic properties for this entire length of time, even after 5,000 scratches in an abrasion test. As for heat transfer properties, those were improved by a factor of 20, which simply translates to a 2% overall process boost.

Talk about the future, the team is now collaborating with the university’s Abbott Power Plant to study the coating’s performance for six months of steady condensation exposure under industrial conditions.

“If all goes well, we hope to show everyone that this is an effective solution that is economically viable,” Miljkovic said. “We want our solution to be adopted, because although the development of renewable energy should absolutely be a priority, it’s still very worthwhile to continue improving what we have now.”

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