University of Cambridge > > ELCF - Engineering for a Low Carbon Future (seminar series) > High efficiency, low emissions: Power generation on the road to thermotopia

High efficiency, low emissions: Power generation on the road to thermotopia

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When the world’s first public electricity generating station opened in London in 1882, the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics had been known for less than a quarter of a century. Nevertheless, it was the application of those laws which guided the development of power generation through the twentieth century and those same laws which have made possible the dramatic increases in efficiency seen over the last fifteen years.

The search for high efficiency and low emissions has spawned a bewildering array of complex thermodynamic cycles, each claiming some particular benefit. Manufacturing industry is constrained to move by comparatively small evolutionary steps, however, and so the world is unlikely to progress with great rapidity to a radically different infrastructure for power generation. The industrial gas turbine has more than proved itself and is likely to retain a large share of the market for the foreseeable future. In simple-cycle operation its efficiency is not high but it can be incorporated into a wide range of cycles to enhance its performance.

Waiting in the wings, however, is the exciting possibility of overcoming the Carnot limitation, that longest standing of all thermodynamic restrictions, ever-present whenever fuel is burned to produce heat. The ‘holy grail’ of power generation, the direct conversion of chemical energy to electricity, is now technically feasible with the solid oxide fuel cell and in the SOFC -GT combined-cycle, the goal of ultra-high efficiency and near-zero emissions may finally be realised.

But will these engineering advances do much to reduce the rate of carbon emission to the atmosphere? Despite the huge publicity, the scale of the problem is not widely appreciated even by practising engineers. A few very simple calculations can display the enormity of the task, and some inescapable conclusions emerge.

John Young is the Hopkinson and ICI Professor of Applied Thermodynamics in the Cambridge University Engineering Department. His research interests include the theory of non-equilibrium two-phase flow, wet-steam turbine technology, homogeneous nucleation theory, various applications in clean-coal technology, solid particle transport and deposition in turbulent gas flows, the thermodynamics of advanced cycles for power generation, gas turbine blade cooling, multicomponent diffusion theory and solid oxide fuel cell technology. Although much of his work is related to the power generation industry, he is also interested in more fundamental problems in thermodynamics.

This talk is part of the ELCF - Engineering for a Low Carbon Future (seminar series) series.

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