With an Eye to SMRs, Sandia Seeks Industry Partner for Brayton-Cycle Turbines

As excitement surrounds the development of small modular reactors that offer a cheaper, faster and more flexible way to increase nuclear power generation, the Sandia National Laboratory is developing a technology that could make them significantly more efficient.

The lab recently moved into the demonstration phase of a gas turbine power generation system that promises to operate 50 percent more efficiently than the Rankine-cycle steam turbines used in traditional nuclear plants. The research is now to the point, New Mexico Business Weekly reported, that the lab is seeking an industry partner to market the technology.

“There is a tremendous amount of industrial and scientific interest in supercritical CO2 systems for power generation using all potential heat sources including solar, geothermal, fossil fuel, biofuel and nuclear,” Steve Wright of Sandia’s Advanced Nuclear Concepts group said in a lab release.

One such system engineered by the researchers has been producing power at contractor Barber Nichols’ Arvada, Colo., facility. That system will soon join another unit at Sandia’s Albuquerque headquarters used to study its bearings, seals and other equipment, according to the release. Researchers hope to commercialize the technology and develop a 10 megawatt demonstration plant.

The system uses a closed loop of supercritical CO2 that has the density of a liquid but many of the properties of a gas. The Brayton cycle – the basic principle behind jet engines – heats air in a confined space and releases it in a particular direction.

“This machine is basically a jet engine running on a hot liquid,” said Wright.

The resulting system is 1/30th the size of comparable steam turbines and operates with a thermal-to-electric conversion efficiency that the lab said potentially offers a 50 percent improvement.

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