Stirling Energy & Commercial Power Generation – An Interim Step to Energy Independence

For several years I have been studying and watching with great interest the development of the Stirling engine for use as a prime mover in stationary power generating applications and as a heat pump.  I was very excited in August 2005 about the press release announcing the ‘biggest solar deal’ in decades here in the Southern California desert that would utilize Stirling technology, and have been watching the developments in the North West with hermetically sealed free piston technology evolve from an idea to a finished product now just months away from commercial availability.

Stirling technology has been around for more than two centuries and although widely utilized upon its inception, has struggled to find a niche’ since the advent of the internal combustion engine (ICE). There have been successful implementations of Stirling technology and extensive research performed – especially back in the 1980’s – in programs and studies conducted by the Department of Energy, NASA Lewis Research Center, and Oakridge National Laboratories, to name but a few. (Many of these reports are available for download and make interesting studies.) A quick search of the Internet produces enthusiasts, bloggers and hobbyists who believe there is an application for this technology in something – somewhere – though much of what I have read might indicate that this technology as a resource may not be getting the attention that it deserves.

Today’s consciencious and educated society has created an environment rich with opportunities for technologies that are new, un-thought of, fresh and simply waiting for their time in history. With a government supportive of both the work ethic and spirit that made this country great and also supportive of the drive and need for us to be energy independent, it seems to me that Stirling is one of those technologies that may have a place in our near future.

There have been a handful of good books written about the “air engine” (“Principles and Applications of Stirling Engines” by West and “Air Engines” by Finkelstein and Organ being the must-owns for any student of Stirling technology) and only four or five companies around the world that have or are attempting commercialization of this technology on any scale. For as long as air engine technology has been around, there seems to exist a relatively small amount of available literature – even though there seems to be quite a lot of published scientific data! (Ask one of your friends at work if they know what a Stirling engine is!)

Having been a student of the Stirling cycle for a few years now, I believe it does have an application in our present time in history. Let’s consider a couple of the pros and cons. First a few pros; the engine is durable/rugged, few moving  parts, reliable, low maintenance cycle, can utilize low quality thermal energy (virtually any heat source), and is scalable in its design – though not linearly! Next, a few of the cons; the engine is not compact, high working pressure, not as controllable as the ICE, not commercially available – the biggest of all – it is still an engine!!

That last one is very important – it means that in order to get energy out, you still have to put energy in. When you truly consider the implications attached, unless we are discussing Solar Dish/Stirling, then Stirling energy is for the most part taken out of consideration as a renewable energy component! Or is it? Wow – that’s a mouth full!

O.K. – I’m going to leave it here for now but let me tell you briefly where I am going with this blog… In May, I will conclude a short period of investigatory research I am currently undertaking on the use of Stirling technology in commercial power generation.  I consider this research a prelude to other things to come in the future. There has been extensive research conducted by Oakridge into stationary applications already so we have a good idea of what the opportunities or capabilities might be. Through modeling I am considering the impacts at different locations to a traditional Rankine cycle (most coal fired steam plants), supplementary firing on the post-combustor side of the Brayton cycle and “stand alone” applications – what ever that might imply. I have completed some preliminary modeling of the Rankine cycle and the results are interesting.

Although I won’t publish my report or discuss my conclusions on the feasibility aspects of this study until May, I will blog some of my findings and thoughts  and certainly welcome any questions, thoughts, suggestions or just plain curious enquiries along the way…

~ by frazerthompson on February 28, 2009.

4 Responses to “Stirling Energy & Commercial Power Generation – An Interim Step to Energy Independence”

  1. Frazer,
    This is interesting. This is all news to me… I look forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks for checking in! One thing that seems obvious to me at this stage is that for at least the near future, we will still depend on engines – internal or external combustion – as the prime movers for our electrical power generation. How do we appraoch this efficiently…

  3. Terrific page=D Hope to definitely visit again..

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