Exchanging Steam for SCO2

In recent days, many people find themselves spending time and resources on uncovering the best solution to optimize the power generation cycle. Until recently, 80% of power plants worldwide (whether fossil fuel, nuclear, or clean technology) used steam as its main working fluid and while it is still the most common option, today’s power plants are finding another fluid to use.

Although supercritical CO2 study began in the 1940’s, it was disregarded as an alternative fluid option because it was expensive to explore and steam was still perfectly reliable at the time. Nowadays due to increasing quantity and quality demand in power, researchers are looking into the possibility of replacing steam with supercritical carbon dioxide. The discover of this property,  increases the incentive of exploring the technology further. This year, the US Department of Energy is awarding up to $80 million towards projects to build and operate a supercritical CO2 plant.

Getting back to the basics, it is important to establish what supercritical CO2 is. SCO2 is a fluid state of carbon dioxide where it is held at or above its critical temperature and critical pressure. When carbon dioxide is heated above its critical temperature and compressed above its critical pressure, the fluid inherits both liquid and gaseous phase properties. SCO2 has many unique properties that allow the fluid to dissolve materials like a liquid but at the same time flow like a gas. It also carries the advantage of being non-toxic, non-flammable and environmentally friendly.

Supercritical CO2 is believed to improve the efficiency of thermal power plants that utilize coal, natural gas,  solar, geothermal or nuclear energy. At its supercritical state, carbon dioxide is able to generate a higher amount of electricity from the same fuel compared to a steam power plant. Accordingly , it will drop down carbon dioxide & greenhouse gas emissions as well as operating cost. The use of carbon dioxide as a working fluid also allows for the usage of smaller and more economically feasible machines. Supercritical carbon dioxide is twice as dense as steam, thus easier to compress. With this in mind, smaller components can be used, for example, to decrease the turbine size compared to a steam generating power cycle, resulting in lower costs. Although an economically feasible SCO2 plant has yet to exist due to the early stage of technology and the still high research and development costs, we may be able to expect one in the near future as it is beneficial both economically as well as environmentally compared to a traditional steam power cycle.

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