$1.5M grant supports work in improving systems to reduce water usage, increase efficiency, cut costs

In partnership with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, researchers and faculty from Lehigh University’s Energy Research Center (ERC) and the Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) Engineering Research Center were recently awarded $1.5 million in funding from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. 

The award, granted through the Crosscutting Research for Coal-Fueled Power Plants program, will support research into the improvement of coal power plant dry cooling technology through application of cold thermal energy storage. The Lehigh team includes:
  • John Fox, assistant professor, civil and environmental engineering, P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science

  • Clay Naito, professor, civil and environmental engineering, Rossin College

  • Sudhakar Neti, emeritus professor, mechanical engineering and mechanics, Rossin College; senior scientist, ERC

  • Carlos Romero, director and principal research scientist, ERC

  • Muhannad Suleiman, associate professor, civil and environmental engineering, Rossin College

  • Zheng Yao, research scientist, ERC

The ERC and ATLSS are part of Lehigh’s Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure and Energy (I-CPIE), a hub for interdisciplinary research.

Together, the UNCC-Lehigh team represents more than 50 years of experience in power generation technologies and the power generation industry. The team will be led by principal investigators Nenad Sarunac (UNCC) and Carlos Romero (Lehigh) and includes industry collaborator Worley, a leading global provider of professional project and asset services in the energy, chemicals, and resources sectors. Additional industry advisors include the Baltimore Aircoil Company and Gas Technology Institute.

The project entails developing, designing, and evaluating a robust and cost-effective system for improving performance of mechanical draft dry cooling towers and air-cooled condensers, which cool steam exiting power plant turbines with air instead of water. Though dry cooling systems reduce water consumption at coal power plants, they are generally more costly and less efficient. In developing innovative, scalable, and cost-effective technology to improve dry cooling in power plants, the team will help overcome these challenges to increase efficiency without using any additional water. 

“Water withdrawal by thermoelectric power plants is of the order of 50 trillion gallons, representing a large share of overall freshwater withdrawal in the U.S.,” explains Romero. “There is a great interest in reducing the water footprint of these plants.” 

The team expects that the resulting technology will have industrial, commercial, and residential power generation applications beyond coal-fired power plants (e.g., natural gas combined cycles and concentrated solar power systems).

To achieve these goals, the team will develop an integrated direct heat exchanger and thermal energy storage unit that allows the system to operate at a minimum cooling temperature by taking advantage of daily temperature fluctuations (i.e., storing “cold” energy at night, when ambient temperature is low, and using it to pre-cool air entering the air-cooled condensers during the hottest period of the day). 

This approach draws upon the team’s previous work, funded by DOE ARPA-E, of including Phase Change Material (PCM) engineering in the temperature range of interest and system integration/testing at the laboratory and prototype scale, as well as work funded by the National Science Foundation on developing pervious concrete and investigating applications in civil infrastructure.


Energy Research sign

In partnership with UNCC, researchers and faculty from the ERC and ATLSS were recently awarded funding from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Pervious concrete samples at different levels of compaction

Pervious concrete samples are shown at different levels of compaction. This new DOE-funded project will draw, in part, on previous research into developing pervious concrete and investigating its applications in civil infrastructure.