The concept of absorbing concentrated solar radiation volumetrically, rather than on a surface, is being researched by several groups with differing designs for high temperature solar receivers. The Small Particle Heat Exchange Receiver (SPHER), one such design, is a gas-cooled central receiver capable of producing pressurized air in excess of 1100 C designed to be directly integrated into a Brayton-cycle power block to generate electricity from solar thermal power. The unique heat transfer fluid used in the SPHER is a low-density suspension of carbon nano-particles (diameter ∼ 200 nm) to absorb highly concentrated solar radiation directly in a gas stream, rather than on a fixed absorber like a tube or ceramic foam. The nano-particles are created on-demand by pyrolyzing a small flow of natural gas in an inert carrier gas just upstream of the receiver, and the particle stream is mixed with air prior to injection into the receiver. The receiver features a window (or multiple windows, depending on scale) on one end to allow concentrated sunlight into the receiver where it is absorbed by the gas-particle suspension prior to reaching the receiver walls. As they pass through the receiver the carbon nano-particles oxidize to CO2 resulting a clear gas stream ready to enter a downstream combustor or directly into the turbine. The amount of natural gas consumed or CO2 produced is miniscule (1–2%) compared to what would be produced if the natural gas were burned directly to power a gas turbine.
The idea of a SPHER, first proposed many years ago, has been tested on a kW scale by two different groups. In the new work, the engineering for a multi-MW SPHER is reported. An in-house Monte Carlo model of the radiation heat transfer in the gas-particle mixture has been developed and is coupled to FLUENT to perform the fluid dynamic calculations in the receiver. Particle properties (size distribution and complex index of refraction) are obtained experimentally from angular scattering and extinction measurements of natural gas pyrolysis in a lab-scale generator, and these are corroborated using image analysis of Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) pictures of particles captured on a filter. A numerical model of the particle generator has been created to allow for scale-up for a large receiver. We have also designed a new window for the receiver that will allow pressurized operation up to 10 bar with a 2 m diameter window. Recent progress on overcoming the engineering challenges in developing this receiver for a prototype test is reported.