A Boiling Innovation for Steam Turbine Plants

steam turbine
Ryan Pollin for Zondits, April 6, 2015

Researchers at Drexel University have achieved exciting progress with their innovation of an age-old process: boiling. We rely on boiling in conventional steam-turbine plants, whether they are heated by coal, gas, nuclear materials, or concentrated solar – which means that this innovation has massive retrofit applications for almost every power plant on the planet.

Research leader Matthew McCarthy explains that the team uses a common tobacco plant virus to facilitate building a metallic lattice across the liquid surface of the boiling material, and that lattice increases the rate at which water molecules can change from liquid to gas. Faster boiling means marginally increasing efficiency in every power plant online, and possible applications in certain heat exchangers, both of which get us very excited!

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Using Viruses To Help Water Blow Off Steam

Drexel Now, March 25, 2015

Legions of viruses that infect the leaves of tobacco plants could be the key to making power plants safer, heating and cooling of buildings more efficient, and electronics more powerful. These tiny protein bundles, which were once a threat to a staple cash crop of the nascent United States in the 1800s, are now helping researchers like Drexel University’s Matthew McCarthy, PhD, better understand and enhance the processes of boiling and condensation.

McCarthy’s research focuses on phase-change heat transfer—the boiling, evaporation and condensation of fluids. These processes, which are ubiquitous in nature, have also become integral to the technologies that keep our society running. Steam turbines generate electricity in massive plants that power cities. Boiling water is a time-tested purification method that is still used to treat water supplies. And both heating and cooling processes are part of the systems that control our indoor climates on a daily basis. If McCarthy’s work can make phase-change heat transfer even a little more efficient its impact could be huge.

“Even slight improvements to technologies that are used so widely can be quite impactful,” McCarthy said. “Phase-change heat transfer plays an important role in everything from power generation to water purification, HVAC and electronics cooling. Increasing performance of these systems would translate to significant improvements in the way we produce, consume and conserve our energy and water resources.”

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