Sandia technology may substantially reduce thermoelectric power water usage

June 6, 2019 2:15 pm Published by

Thanks to technology created by Sandia researchers, cooling power plants using significantly less water may someday be a reality.

The technology uses a thermodynamic cycle for a cooling loop that makes it easier to transfer heat into the air. Basically, this means matching the temperature of the working fluid to that of the air receiving the rejected heat. This makes it possible to reject heat to air with much less power required to drive the needed fans. And this relatively small reduction in the amount of water used to create electricity can have a much larger effect on the amount of drinking water available.

“Only twelve percent of the water consumed in the U.S. is used for all domestic purposes — or indoor and outdoor uses at residences—such as drinking, food preparation, washing clothes, watering lawns and gardens, or other landscape features in a domestic environment,” said Bobby Middleton (8800), a Sandia researcher and developer in Advanced Nuclear Concepts. “Between forty and fifty percent of all water withdrawn in the United States is used for thermoelectric power production.”

The new Sandia technology uses a thermodynamic cycle for a cooling loop that makes it easier to transfer heat into the air. This image shows the Cooling Towers at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station that can eventually benefit from the new Sandia technology. (Getty image)

The technology recently received a patent titled “Cooling Systems and Methods for Thermoelectric Power Generation.” with Bobby, Marie Arrieta, a researcher in Sandia’s Nuclear Verification department, and Matthew Carlson, now in Sandia’s Concentrating Solar Technology group, all named as co-inventors.

The idea came to them while they were working in Advanced Nuclear Concepts on a separate Laboratory Directed Research and Development project in 2015.

The researchers are currently working on two Sandia Natural Circulation Cooler software models they hope to validate this summer. They intend to test Sandia’s technology ideas against state-of-the-art, commercially-available technology.

Bobby said that although the team won’t know the impact of the new systems for some time, they hope the technology will one day reduce cooling plant water usage by as much as 25 percent. Bobby said technological advances beyond the current designs could drive this reduction even further.

Next steps for the work include building industry and government interest in the models, and more testing in the lab, Bobby said.

“This has been the most fun I’ve had working on a project, and we’ve received great support from management,” Bobby said. “And although right now the overall impact of the improvement is uncertain, we may start a process that could reduce water usage from forty-five percent to twenty percent within the next few decades.”