Thursday, May 31, 2012

Innovation At The Core Of A Solar Thermal Energy Plant

A company based in the Science Park of Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), Sun to Market, together with UC3M researchers, has developed a new, improved design for the central receiver of a solar thermal energy plant, one of the most important parts of this type of cutting-edge installations in the renewable energy sector.

Credit:  UC3M

The first solar thermal energy plant in the world with a central receiver and thermal storage in commercial operation was recently installed in Spain (Gemasolar, designed by Sener and property of Torresol Energy). As it can function both day and night, approximately 7,000 hours a year, it represents a significant development in the solar energy sector. The most important project internationally, currently under construction, will soon be in operation in the USA, property of Solar Reserve with UCT technology, an American giant in aerospace engineering. “There is certain agreement worldwide at both the scientific and industrial level that this technology will come to be the most dominate one in the sector because of its manageability and cost, with a yearly production of 7,000 hours and capable of obtaining a kilowatt hour for less than 10 US cents,” Enrique Serrano, Director of Operations at Sun to Market (S2M), pointed out.

The company has created, together with the ISE (Energy Systems Engineering) Research Group lead by UC3M professor Domingo Santana, a new design for a central receiver in the tower of this type of plants, the core of these installations. All of the solar energy which comes from the thousands of heliostats that are oriented toward this point is concentrated in this part. 

“Our new concept enables us to use other types of more economical and feasible materials for this part, as well as to work at a lower temperatures range in order to obtain the same energy result,” Serrano explained. For this purpose, they have investigated the functioning of this type of plant and explored its operational limits, including future real prototype tests and an innovative roadmap for a solar energy plant with a central receiver with storage. As a result, they have developed another innovation in the system of energy recovery in the pumping of thermal fluid (salts) to the receiver, which S2M and ISE have both patented. “This system permits an energy recovery above 70%, for which the energy consumption of the power plant decreases, thereby notably improving overall performance,” Serrano observed.

These improvements in the material are focused on perfecting the management of this type of power plant so as to increase its integration into the energy market. In addition, the company has developed two other innovations in relation to the information systems: simulation software for the heliostat solar area, and a system for short-term prediction of the specialized solar resource, which takes into account solar rays, clouds, vertical winds in the tower, partial shade, etc. As the company puts it, the aim is to concentrate their R+D+i efforts and offer technology and scientific-technical services related to solar energy in general. As a result, a mixed laboratory will soon be started up between the company and UC3M for collaboration among technicians, scientists and students interested in this area. “The laboratory’s midterm objective”, they revealed, “is to design, construct and operate a prototype plant in which all the developments carried out can be tested, focusing in-depth on real performance.”

The Sun to Market Solutions company creates IT solutions for the design, development and operation of solar electricity power plants, as well as offering consulting and engineering services in this sector. The company was begun in 2009 within the UC3M Business Incubator Science Park, in Leganes Technology Park, which as Serrano points out “has helped us to get in touch with the scientists who could best collaborate on our projects, as well as accompany us in investment forums and introduce us into developing markets such as South America.” Since then, the company has already acquired two patents, accumulated a large volume of sales, and opened local offices in the United States, India and China, successively. Furthermore, the S2M staff is mainly composed of young engineers and provides an opportunity for UC3M students to carry out their final year projects. “All of this,” Serrano concluded, “makes us very optimistic regarding the future evolution of our company”.

Contacts and sources:
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid - Oficina de Información Científica

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