Material improvement for concentrated solar power plants

2 min read

Engineers have developed a new nanoparticle-based material for concentrating solar power plants designed to absorb and convert more than 90 per cent of the sunlight it captures to heat.

Developed at the University of California, San Diego, the new material is also claimed to withstand temperatures greater than 700 degrees Celsius and survive many years outdoors in spite of exposure to air and humidity. Their work, funded by the US Department of Energy’s SunShot program, was published in Nano Energy.

By contrast, current solar absorber material functions at lower temperatures and needs to be overhauled almost every year for high temperature operations.

Graduate student Bryan VanSaders measures how much simulated sunlight a novel material can absorb using a unique set of instruments that takes spectral measurements from visible to infrared. This testing is led by electrical engineering professor Zhaowei
Graduate student Bryan VanSaders measures how much simulated sunlight a novel material can absorb using a unique set of instruments that takes spectral measurements from visible to infrared. This testing is led by electrical engineering professor Zhaowei Liu

‘We wanted to create a material that absorbs sunlight that doesn’t let any of it escape. We want the black hole of sunlight,’ said Sungho Jin, a professor in the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Jin, along with professor Zhaowei Liu of the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering professor Renkun Chen, developed the silicon boride-coated nanoshell material.

The novel material is said to features a multiscale surface created by using particles of many sizes ranging from 10 nanometres to 10 micrometres. The multiscale structures can trap and absorb light, which contributes to the material’s high efficiency when operated at higher temperatures.

Concentrating solar power (CSP) is an emerging alternative clean energy market that produces approximately 3.5 gigawatts worth of power at power plants around the globe, with additional construction in progress to provide as much as 20 gigawatts of power in coming years.

One of the technology’s attractions is that it can be used to retrofit existing power plants that use coal or fossil fuels because it uses the same process to generate electricity from steam.

CSP power plants create the steam needed to turn a turbine by using sunlight to heat molten salt. The molten salt can also be stored in thermal storage tanks overnight where it can continue to generate steam and electricity, 24 hours a day if desired, a significant advantage over photovoltaic systems that stop producing energy with the sunset.

One of the most common types of CSP systems uses more than 100,000 reflective mirrors to aim sunlight at a tower that has been spray painted with a light absorbing black paint material. The material is designed to maximize sun light absorption and minimize the loss of light that would naturally emit from the surface in the form of infrared radiation.

The UC San Diego team’s combined expertise was used to develop, optimize and characterize a new material for this type of system over the past three years.  Researchers included a group of UC San Diego graduate students in materials science and engineering, Justin Taekyoung Kim, Bryan VanSaders, and Jaeyun Moon, who recently joined the faculty of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The synthesized nanoshell material is spray-painted in Chen’s lab onto a metal substrate for thermal and mechanical testing. The material’s ability to absorb sunlight is measured in Liu’s optics laboratory using a unique set of instruments that takes spectral measurements from visible light to infrared.

Current CSP plants are shut down about once a year to chip off the degraded sunlight absorbing material and reapply a new coating. That is why DOE’s SunShot program challenged and supported UC San Diego research teams to come up with a material with a substantially longer life cycle, in addition to the higher operating temperature for enhanced energy conversion efficiency. The UC San Diego research team is aiming for many years of usage life, a feat they believe they are close to achieving.