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Power for the People Stirling Engines for Domestic CHP

Power for the People Stirling Engines for Domestic CHP

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Published by Awais Chaudry

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Published by: Awais Chaudry on Aug 30, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Domestic CHP offers the potentialfor households in the UK to generatetheir own electricity. We could seeenergy bills fall radically and carbondioxide emissions reduced. But thetechnology just has not taken off.Fred Starr explains some of thechallenges and the benefits of Domestic CHP with particular  reference to one possible power  generator, the Stirling engine.
 The 21st century will see the conceptof ‘Domestic’ CHP (Combined Heatand Power) turning from a pipe dreamto commercial reality. In a nutshell, theprinciple of Domestic CHP is toproduce most of the electricity needs of a single household using a miniaturegenerator driven by a small engine.In the UK and Northern Europe,such an engine would be fuelled bynatural gas. The waste heat from theengine would go into the householdcentral heating system, offsetting in partthe fuel that would normally be burnt inthe gas boiler. The central heating boilerwould contain the engine–generatorcombination to produce electricity, plusan ancillary boiler to producesupplemental heat. This would beneeded when the waste heat from theengine was insufficient for householdneeds (see Figure 1).Like other forms of combined heatand power, Domestic CHP will result insubstantial energy savings. Pushed toits limit, Domestic CHP could supply allof the electric power that the UKdemands. In so doing, it would useabout two thirds of the natural gas usedin the best combined cycle plants. Ittherefore gives the promise of extendingNorth Sea gas reserves and of reducingCO
emissions. For the consumer therewould also be substantial gains. Although domestic gas consumptionwould rise, the consumer could expectto reduce energy bills by between £100and £200 per year.
Power units for DomesticCHP
For Domestic CHP to become realitythe choice of prime mover, that is the‘engine’ which converts the fuel energyin natural gas to electrical ormechanical power, should be logicaland realistic. However, every system forproducing ‘domestic power’ presentlyhas some sort of Achilles heel.I believe that, in the near term atleast, the Stirling engine is the best of the available options. But there aremany myths that surround this type of prime mover. One intention of thisreview is to inject a measure of objectivity into the claims that are oftenmade for Stirling engines. Another is toconsider why the time is ripe forDomestic CHP and how, in the longerterm, it could provide a secure basis forpower generation in this country andelsewhere.What then are the main contenders,apart from the Stirling engine? Perhapsthe most obvious is the internalcombustion engine, the power unit inevery car and truck. Its majorshortcoming is the high level of carbonmonoxide in the exhaust. Despite theuse of catalytic converters to reduceCO levels, safety issues preclude theuse of such an engine in the house.Gas turbines would seem to be anothernear-term option. Here again there aresafety and cost considerations. The gassupply would need to be pressurisedso that the risks of an explosion, if therewere leakage, would be very high. That is all that what might be termed‘normal technology’ has to offer. Mostof the drawbacks of internal
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Power fromthe people
Stirling engines forDomestic CHP
combustion engines and small gasturbines can be overcome, but only at aprohibitive expense, and we are in amass production market where theconsumer is very sensitive to first cost.Some proponents of Domestic CHPhave turned to other, less conventionalapproaches that are better in terms of safety and environmental impact. Thermoelectric devices are already incommercial use in certain nicheapplications, such as cathodicprotection for pipelines. Thermoelectricsdirectly convert the heat from a burningflame into electricity. Sadly, the efficiencyof conversion is too low for DomesticCHP: at best they offer under 5%. Thefuel cell can also be classed as anotherdirect energy converter. It is the mostefficient of all the contenders. Theproblem here is that the small fuel cellrequires hydrogen as a fuel, rather thannatural gas, which is methane-based.Nevertheless a Domestic CHP systembased on a fuel cell would fit very wellinto a future hydrogen economy, but it isnot a near-term option.
Operation of the Stirlingengine
Let us now take a look at the Stirlingengine itself, which in some ways can beregarded as a combination of advancedand conventional technology. Indeed theStirling might be likened to an old-fashioned steam engine, but withoutwater or a boiler. In the Stirling engine, apressurised gas such as air, nitrogen orhelium is used as the ‘working fluid’,which is sealed within the engine casing.Let us suppose that the working fluidis helium. When the engine is running,the helium is shuttled back and forthbetween a hot space and a cold spacein the engine by means of a ‘displacer’piston. When the helium is in the hotspace, the pressure and volume rise.Conversely when the helium is in thecold space, the pressure and volumefall. These pressure and volume changesare made to drive a ‘power piston’ upand down a separate cylinder within theengine, just as in a steam engine (seeFigure 2). In this way the Stirling enginecan be made to produce power. Tomaximise efficiency one needs to have abig temperature difference between thehot and cold parts of the engine, and tomaximise power the helium must be athigh pressure.For the engine to operate, the high-temperature end must be keptcontinuously hot. In a Domestic CHPStirling the heat is supplied by burningnatural gas. Again, in order for theengine to operate, waste heat mustcontinuously be removed from the coolend of the engine. With Domestic CHPthe heat is taken away by the water inthe central heating system. We can seehow the Stirling engine fits in well withconventional central heating: in onesense, we have simply replaced theboiler with a power unit.
The prospects for theStirling engine
 The Stirling engine has been with ussince the Industrial Revolution. Thousands of small ‘hot air’ engines,working on the principle of the Stirlingengine, were built to replace horse ormanpower in small industrial and
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Figure 1:Schematic diagram of aDomestic CHP system.(Courtesy of Whispertech Ltd.)
commercial sites. With the coming of the internal combustion engine andlater still of electric power, this marketdied. Since then the Stirling engine hascontinued to be an also-ran, despiteefforts to resurrect it for low-emissionsmotor vehicles. Why then might it havea future for Domestic CHP? The key feature of the Stirling is thatit is an externally fired engine in whichthe heat passes from the outside of theengine into the working fluid within theengine. Because of this, burning naturalgas at atmospheric pressure willproduce the necessary heat energy.Hence emission levels, in terms of NOxand carbon monoxide, are low. Asnoted earlier this is vital wherecombustion products could seep outinto kitchens or other rooms. TheStirling engine is reasonably silent,another desirable feature. Unlike theinternal combustion engine there is noexplosion noise, and unlike the gasturbine there is no aerodynamic whinefrom the compressor or turbine.Quietness is next to godliness in thiscontext.However we are beginning to needto tread very carefully when weighingup the claims about Stirling engines.When we think about car engines, weknow that – whoever the manufacturer– they are all basically of the samedesign. In comparing one make of internal combustion engine withanother, we can use the same basicideas of compression ratio, pistonspeed, bore-to-stoke ratio, etc, inmaking our judgements about likelypower output, efficiency and reliability. This is far from true with the Stirlingengine. Each designer has his own ideaof how the engine should look. Thepicture is further complicated by theneeds of Domestic CHP. Here, in manycases the generator is contained within apressurised crankcase to prevent theescape of helium from the engine, and isa major factor in the overall enginedesign. Accordingly, one needs to bevery cautious in one’s assessments.For example, earlier Stirling enginedesigns ran with oil lubrication and, dueto the dampening effect of the oil film,were extremely quiet. The difficulty withoil is that it can work its way into thehot zones of the engine and coke upheat exchangers. To overcome thisproblem, modern crankshaft–pistonStirlings use grease-packed rollerbearings and polymeric piston rings. These are not as good at cutting outnoise. However there is a type of Stirling engine in which the piston issupported with a combination of springs and gas bearings. When peoplesee these in operation, the firstquestion is often: ‘Is the engine on?’ The big issue with this type of machineis the need to fabricate pistons andcylinders with a high degree of accuracy. As far as I know this has yetto be demonstrated in quantityproduction. To summarise, there are fewestablished guidelines for judging theworth of an engine. About the onlythings that all modern designs have incommon is that heater temperaturesare in the 550–750°C range and, asnoted previously, air, nitrogen or heliumare used as working fluids. All usewater cooling. These parametersshould result in a Domestic CHP enginewith an efficiency in the 15–25% rangeand, for a machine about the size of asmall TV set, a power outputsomewhere in the region of 1–3 kW. The statement about efficiency levelsmay surprise some readers. It isgenerally accepted that the Stirling
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Figure 2:The principle of operation ofthe Stirling engine.

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