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Application of Supercritical Fluids in Power Engineering
Igor Pioro, Sarah Mokry, Wargha Peiman, Eugene Saltanov and Lisa Grande
Faculty of Energy Systems and Nuclear Science, University of Ontario Institute of Technology
2000 Simcoe St. N., Oshawa, Ontario, Canada L1K7H4 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2001, ten countries initiated the Generation IV International Forum to develop collaboratively the next
generation of nuclear-energy systems, which will provide competitively-priced and reliable energy in a safe and
sustainable manner. Over 100 potential nuclear reactor concepts (or "systems") were reviewed by an
international panel of experts. This panel selected six reactor types that best matched the Generation IV
objectives of sustainability, economics, safety and reliability and proliferation resistance and physical protection.
One of these reactors was the Supercritical Water-cooled Reactor (SCWR). In addition, other reactor concepts
can be linked to the supercritical-“steam” Rankine cycle through heat exchangers.
The supercritical-"steam" cycle was first introduced in coal-fired power plants in 1957, and the extensive
operating experience in this technology will be the cornerstone for SCWR development. The primary objective
for using supercritical water as a coolant in nuclear reactors are: (1) to increase the thermal efficiency of modern
nuclear power plants, which is currently 30 - 35%, to approximately 45% or higher, and (2) to decrease the
operational and capital costs by eliminating the steam generators, steam separators, steam dryers, etc. that are
currently used in modern fossil-fired plants.
Also, some Generation IV reactor concepts can be connected to the supercritical carbon-dioxide Brayton gas-
turbine cycle. Therefore, studies are currently being conducted on heat-transfer at supercritical conditions in
various fluids including water and carbon dioxide.
The use of supercritical fluids in different processes is not new, nor was it a human invention. Mother Nature
has been processing minerals in aqueous solutions at near or above the critical point of water for billions of years
. It was only in the late 1800s when scientists started to use this natural process, called hydrothermal
processing, in their labs for creating various crystals. During the last 50 – 60 years, this process (operating
parameters - water pressures from 20 to 200 MPa and temperatures from 300 to 500ºC) has been widely used in
the industrial production of high-quality single crystals (mainly gem stones) such as quartz, sapphire, titanium
oxide, tourmaline, zircon and others.
The first works devoted to the problem of heat transfer at supercritical pressures started as early as the 1930s.
Schmidt  and his associates investigated free-convection heat transfer of fluids at the near-critical point with
the application to a new effective cooling system for turbine blades in jet engines. They found that the free-
convection Heat Transfer Coefficient (HTC) at the near-critical state was quite high, and decided to use this
advantage in single-phase thermosyphons, with an intermediate working fluid, at the near-critical point .
In the 1950s, the idea of using supercritical water appeared to be rather attractive for steam generators/turbines in
the thermal-power industry. The objective was to increase the total thermal efficiency of coal-fired power
plants. At supercritical pressures there is no liquid-vapour phase transition; therefore, there is no such
phenomenon as Critical Heat Flux (CHF) or dryout. It is only within a certain range of parameters that
deteriorated heat transfer may occur. Work in this area was mainly performed in the former USSR and in the
USA in the 1950s – 1980s.
Therefore, the objective of this paper is a discussion of the applications of supercritical fluids in the power
SUPERCRITICAL-PRESSURE THERMAL POWER PLANTS
It is well known that electrical-power generation is a key factor for advances in other industries, in agriculture
and contributes to an increased standard of living. For about 100 years, coal was used for generating electrical
energy at coal-fired thermal-power plants worldwide. All coal-fired power plants operate based on the so-called
steam Rankine cycle, which can be grouped at two different levels of pressures: 1) older or smaller capacity
power plants operate at steam pressures no higher than 16 MPa and 2) modern large capacity power plants
(Figure 1) operate at supercritical pressures from 23.5 MPa and up to 38 MPa. Supercritical pressures refers to
pressures above the critical pressure of water, which is 22.064 MPa. From a thermodynamics perspective, it is
well known that higher thermal efficiencies correspond to higher temperatures and pressures. Therefore, usually
subcritical-pressure plants have thermal efficiencies of about 34 – 38% and modern supercritical-pressure plants
of about 43 – 50%, or even slightly higher. Steam-generators outlet temperatures or steam-turbine inlet
temperatures have reached the level of about 625°C (and even higher) at pressures of 25 – 30 (35 – 38) MPa.
However, the common level is about 535 – 585°C at pressures of 23.5 – 25 MPa. Using supercritical water-
steam at coal-fired thermal-power plants is the largest application of supercritical fluids in the power industry.
However, in spite of advances in coal-fired power-plant design and operation worldwide, they are still not
considered to be environmental friendly due to the production of carbon-dioxide emissions, as a result of the
combustion process, plus production of ash, slag and even acid rain.
FUTURE APPLICATIONS OF SUPERCRITICAL-PRESSURE FLUIDS IN NUCLEAR POWER
Nuclear power, as coal and other fossil fuels, is a non-renewable resource. However, nuclear resources can be
used for significantly longer time period when compared to some fossil fuels, plus nuclear power does not emit
carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Currently, this source of energy is considered the most viable option of
electrical generation for the next 50 – 100 years.
Current nuclear reactors, i.e., Generation II and III, consist of water-cooled reactor Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs)
with a thermal efficiency of 30 – 35% (vast majority of reactors); carbon-dioxide-cooled reactor NPPs with a
thermal efficiency up to 42% and liquid-sodium-cooled reactor NPPs with a thermal efficiency up to 40%.
Within the next 5 – 25 years, Generation III+ (2010 – 2025) reactors with improved parameters (water-cooled
NPPs with a thermal efficiency up to 38%) will be implemented. However, these reactors will have only
evolutionary design improvements. Therefore, the next generation or Generation IV (2025 - …) reactors with
new parameters (NPPs with the thermal efficiency of 43 – 50% and even higher for all types of reactors) are
currently under development worldwide.
The supercritical-steam Rankine cycle is very efficient and is the only proven cycle for water-cooled thermal
power plants. Therefore, this cycle can be used in SuperCritical Water-cooled Nuclear Power Plants (SCW
NPPs) (Figure 2). The main objectives of using supercritical water in nuclear reactors are: 1) to increase the
efficiency of modern NPPs, which is currently 30 – 35% to approximately 43 – 50%, and 2) to decrease the
operational and capital costs by eliminating steam generators, steam separators, steam dryers, etc. Currently,
SuperCritical Water-cooled nuclear Reactor (SCWR) concepts are one of six conceptual options included in the
next generation or Generation IV nuclear systems . Moreover, due to various problems with other Generation
IV concepts, this cycle can be connected to any of the Generation IV reactors through their heat exchangers.
In addition, the supercritical carbon-dioxide Brayton gas-turbine cycle is also considered for implementation in
Generation IV nuclear-reactor concepts, such as for Sodium-cooled Fast Reactors (SFRs), Lead-cooled Fast
Reactors (LFRs) (Figure 3) and High Temperature helium-cooled thermal Reactors (HTRs).
Therefore, knowledge of thermophysical-properties specifics at critical and supercritical pressures is very
important for the safe and efficient use of fluids in various industries.
DEFINITIONS OF TERMS AND EXPRESSIONS RELATED TO CRITICAL AND SUPERCRITICAL
Prior to a general discussion on specifics of thermophysical properties and forced-convective heat transfer at
critical and supercritical pressures, it is important to define special terms and expressions used at these
conditions. For a better understanding of these terms and expressions their definitions are listed below together
with corresponding Figures 4 and 5 (for further details, see ).
Compressed fluid is a fluid at a pressure above the critical pressure, but at a temperature below the critical
Critical point (also called a critical state) is a point in which the distinction between the liquid and gas (or
vapour) phases disappears, i.e., both phases have the same temperature, pressure and volume or density. The
critical point is characterized by the phase-state parameters T
), which have unique values for
each pure substance.
Deteriorated Heat Transfer (DHT) is characterized with lower values of the wall heat transfer coefficient
compared to those for normal heat transfer; and hence, has higher values of wall temperature within some part of
a test section or within the entire test section.
Figure 1. Single-reheat-regenerative cycle 600-MW
Tom’-Usinsk thermal-power plant (Russia) layout : CP – Circulation Pump; Cond P – Condensate Pump; Cyl
– Cylinder; GCLP – Gas Cooler of Low Pressure; GCHP – Gas Cooler of High Pressure; H – Heat exchanger (feedwater heater); HP – High Pressure; LP – Low
Pressure; IP – Intermediate Pressure and TDr – Turbine Drive.
Figure 2. SCWR schematic: USA pressure-vessel
concept (courtesy of U.S. DOE).
Figure 3. Lead-cooled Fast Reactor with supercritical
carbon dioxide Brayton cycle (courtesy of U.S. DOE).
Improved Heat Transfer (IHT) is characterized with higher values of the wall heat transfer coefficient compared
to those for normal heat transfer; and hence, lower values of wall temperature within some part of a test section
or within the entire test section. In our opinion, the improved heat-transfer regime or mode includes peaks or
“humps” in the heat transfer coefficient near the critical or pseudocritical points.
Near-critical point is actually a narrow region around the critical point, where all thermophysical properties of a
pure fluid exhibit rapid variations.
Normal Heat Transfer (NHT) can be characterized in general with wall heat transfer coefficients similar to
those of subcritical convective heat transfer far from the critical or pseudocritical regions, when they are
calculated according to the conventional single-phase Dittus-Boelter-type correlations: Nu = 0.0023 Re
Pseudocritical line is a line, which consists of pseudocritical points.
Pseudocritical point (characterized with P
) is a point at a pressure above the critical pressure and at a
) corresponding to the maximum value of the specific heat at this particular pressure.
Supercritical fluid is a fluid at pressures and temperatures that are higher than the critical pressure and critical
temperature. However, in the present paper, the term supercritical fluid includes both terms – a supercritical
fluid and compressed fluid.
Supercritical “steam” is actually supercritical water, because at supercritical pressures fluid is considered as a
single-phase substance. However, this term is widely (and incorrectly) used in the literature in relation to
supercritical “steam” generators and turbines.
Superheated steam is a steam at pressures below the critical pressure, but at temperatures above the critical
THERMOPHYSICAL PROPERTIES AT CRITICAL AND SUPERCRITICAL PRESSURES
The general trends of various properties near the critical and pseudocritical points ,  can be illustrated on a
basis of those of water and carbon dioxide (Figs. 6 - 9). Properties of supercritical helium and R-134a are shown
Figures 6 through 9 show variations in the basic thermophysical properties of water at the critical (P
MPa) and three supercritical pressures (P = 25.0, 30.0, and 35.0 MPa) and those of carbon dioxide at the
equivalent pressures to those of water (the conversion is based on (
properties of 105 pure fluids including water, carbon dioxide, helium, refrigerants, etc., 5 pseudo-pure fluids
(such as air) and mixtures with up to 20 components at different pressures and temperatures, including critical
and supercritical regions, can be calculated using the NIST REFPROP software . Critical parameters of
selected fluids are listed in Table 1.
Figure 4. Pressure-Temperature diagram for water (a) and carbon dioxide (b).
Axial Location, m
0.0 0.5 1.0 1.5 2.0 2.5 3.0 3.5 4.0
Bulk Fluid Enthalpy, kJ/kg
1400 1600 1800 2000 2200 2400 2600 2800
Bulk fluid temperature
Heat transfer coefficient
= 432 kW/m
C 381.1 t
Dittus - Boelter correlation
DHT Improved HT
Figure 5. Temperature and HTC profiles along heated length of vertical circular tubes with upward flow : (a)
Water, ID 10 mm; and (b) Carbon Dioxide, ID 8 mm.
Table 1. Critical parameters of selected fluids .
, MPa T
, ºC µ
Carbon dioxide (CO
) 7.3773 30.98 467.6
Freon-134a (1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane, CH
) 4.0593 101.06 511.9
Helium (He) 0.2276 -267.95 72.567
O) 22.064 373.95 322.0
At critical and supercritical pressures a fluid is considered as a single-phase substance in spite of the fact that all
thermophysical properties undergo significant changes within the critical and pseudocritical regions. Near the
critical point, these changes are dramatic. In the vicinity of pseudocritical points, with an increase in pressure,
these changes become less pronounced (see Figs. 6 - 9).
Also, it can be seen that properties such as density and dynamic viscosity undergo a significant drop (near the
critical point this drop is almost vertical) within a very narrow temperature range (see Figs. 6a,b and 7a,b), while
the kinematic viscosity and specific enthalpy undergo a sharp increase (for details see ). The volume
expansivity, specific heat, thermal conductivity and Prandtl number have peaks near the critical and
pseudocritical points (see Figs. 8a,b and 9a,b). The magnitude of these peaks decreases very quickly with an
increase in pressure. Also, “peaks” transform into “humps” profiles at pressures beyond the critical pressure. It
should be noted that the dynamic viscosity, kinematic viscosity and thermal conductivity undergo through their
minimum right after the critical and pseudocritical points.
Specifics of forced-convection heat transfer at supercritical pressures can be found in  and [8-12]
Figure 6a. Density vs. Temperature: Water. Figure 6b. Density vs. Temperature:
Figure 7a. Dynamic viscosity vs. Temperature: Water. Figure 7b. Dynamic viscosity vs. Temperature:
Figure 8a. Specific heat vs. Temperature: Water. Figure 8b. Specific heat vs. Temperature: Carbon
Figure 9a. Thermal conductivity vs. Temperature:
Figure 9b. Thermal conductivity vs. Temperature:
Supercritical fluids are used quite intensively in various industries. The application of supercritical
water/”steam” in the power industry has significantly increased the thermal efficiency of power plants. Based on
this experience, the next-generation of nuclear power plants have planned to use supercritical-fluid power cycles
such as the Rankine “steam” cycle and the supercritical carbon-dioxide Brayton gas-turbine cycle.
A flow area, m
specific heat at constant pressure, J/kg K
D inside diameter, m
G mass flux, kg/m
H specific enthalpy, J/kg
h heat transfer coefficient, W/m
k thermal conductivity, W/m K
m mass-flow rate, kg/s; ( ) V · µ
P, p pressure, MPa
Q heat-transfer rate, W
q heat flux, W/m
T, t temperature, ºC
u axial velocity, m/s
V volume-flow rate, m
/kg or volume, m
α thermal diffusivity, m
µ dynamic viscosity, Pa· s
µ density, kg/m
u kinematic viscosity, m
Nu Nusselt number; |
Pr Prandtl number;
Re Reynolds number;
Subscripts or superscripts
mixer mixer (chamber)
out outlet or outside
Abbreviations and acronyms widely used in the
text and list of references
CHF Critical Heat Flux
DHT Deteriorated Heat Transfer
DOE Department Of Energy (USA)
HT Heat Transfer
HTC Heat Transfer Coefficient
HTR High Temperature Reactor
ID Inside Diameter
IHT Improved Heat Transfer
LFR Lead-cooled Fast Reactor
NHT Normal Heat Transfer
NIST National Institute of Standards
and Technology (USA)
NPP Nuclear Power Plant
REFPROP REFerence PROPerties
SCW SuperCritical Water
SCWR SuperCritical Water-cooled
SFR Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor
USA United States of America
USSR Union of Soviet Socialist
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