The University of Central Florida is one of only two universities in the nation to land a federal grant that could revolutionize the technology used to run power plants.
The U.S. Department of Energy awarded UCF mechanical and aerospace engineering assistant professor Subith Vasu $1.1 million to investigate how power plants might be able to abandon the use of water to generate energy from steam and instead use supercritical CO2, a fluid state of carbon dioxide.
Supercritical carbon dioxide is an attractive alternative to government agencies and private companies for several reasons. If the technology can be developed to make the switch, it could mean less use of water – a natural resource in short supply in some parts of the nation. Commercial companies are also interested because supercritical CO2 is more efficient at transporting heat – a key principle, which power plants use to generate energy. Better efficiency equals less cost and potentially a bigger profit margin. In addition, it is possible to reduce the size of power-generating turbines by using sCO2 instead of steam. Using sCO2 as a working fluid enables carbon capture and storage) in certain cycle systems. In those systems, the power plant exhaust CO2 is stored underground instead of released into the atmosphere.
Georgia Tech was the only other university to earn money from the Department of Energy’s University Turbine System Research Program for research in this field.
“There are not many universities conducting research in this area and we already have a head start in the world,” Vasu said. “We’re working diligently on turbine technology and Florida is a major hub for the industry. Our goal is to maximize power-generation efficiency, reduce emissions, and become leaders in this area.”
Siemens, Alstom, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems among others are the key players in the industry, and UCF works with most of them on ongoing research through its Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research. The center in the College of Engineering and Computer Science is headed by professor Jayanta Kapat.
Vasu is using the grant to develop a combustion computer model for the design of combustors, where fuel is burned at power plants. The model will provide insights into the processes that occur during the burning stage. Once a model is verified, he and his team will disseminate this tool to industry so they can design optimum sCO2 combustors.
Vasu’s broad areas of expertise include alternative fuels for propulsion and internal combustion engines, shock wave physics, laser diagnostics and sensor technology. He has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and has published multiple papers in each of his areas of expertise. He is also working with several international researchers on a variety of research aimed at everything from helping improve the efficiency of airplane engines to developing sensitive sensors that can detect toxic chemicals aboard commercial spacecraft.
Vasu’s team includes about a dozen graduate students including Owen Pryor who is working on this project. There are also several undergraduate students, many of whom have interned for engineering and space companies such as Space X, Siemens and others. His former graduate students are employed by major gas turbine companies.