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Efficiency by the Numbers

When policy makers sketch out future energy scenarios, they too often overlook t
he best technology we have.
By Lee S. Langston
One would be hard pressed to come up with a more star-studded line-up than the a
ttendees at the National Academies Summit on America s Energy Future, which I atte
nded in Washington in March 2008. The two-day summit featured some 26 presentati
ons providing an overview of recent influential energy research studies and init
iatives, and like Scrooge's Christmas visitors, featured Energy Secretaries past
(James Schlesinger), present (Samuel Bodman), and future (Steven Chu).
Yet another presenter was New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Senate s
Committee on Energy and National Resources. In his remarks, Bingaman illustrated
just how long the U.S. has been grappling with energy-related issues with this
I am inaugurating a program to marshal both government and private research with
the goal of producing an unconventionally powered, virtually pollution-free auto
mobile within five years.
That was President Richard Nixon, addressing Congress in 1970.
The talks centered around renewable energy, the oft-mooted hydrogen economy, and
kicking the oil habit, but as with other recent general energy conferences I ha
ve attended, there was almost a complete lack of serious discussion on the contr
ibution of gas turbines. Sometimes in such discussions, gas turbines are referre
d to as a transitional technology, on the way to the employment of some future,
emerging energy converter (e.g. the fuel cell, solar energy plants, or wind turb
ine farms). But they are not presented as a key technology that could well play
a central role in the nation's and the world's energy future.
Which, in my view, is what gas turbines are. No other technology currently avail
able or likely to be deployed in the next decade has the potential to obtain so
much power from so little energy. In a future where fuel supplies are likely to
be constrained (due to geological, climatological, political, or economic factor
s) the inherent efficiency of the gas turbine will not be overlooked.
To illustrate the way the gas turbine changes the fundamental assumptions about
energy converters, consider the superstar of electricity production, the combine
d cycle gas turbine power plant. These plants operate at thermal efficiencies ap
proaching 60 percent, which makes them far and away the most efficient large ene
rgy converters we have.
Understanding why this is so impressive requires reflecting on the Second Law of
Thermodynamics. Lord Kelvin presented the idea this way: It is impossible to con
struct an engine that, operating continuously, will produce no effect other than
the extraction of heat from a single reservoir and the performance of an equiva
lent amount of work. For instance, if a power plant engine say a Brayton cycle gas
turbine receives heat, Qin, from a reservoir (the combustion of a fossil fuel supp
ly or a nuclear reactor), work W (the turning of a generator to produce electric
ity) is produced, but there must be part of Qin that is rejected as heat, Qout.
The engine s thermal efficiency, h, is then defined as
or in words, useful output divided by costly input, where engineers strive to ma
keh as large as possible.
The heat that must be rejected (Qout) as a consequence of the Second Law is cont
ained in the gas turbine exhaust. But while that heat cannot be used by the firs
t machine, it can be used to provide energy input to another engine, provided th
at the temperature of the rejected heat is high enough for the bottoming engine to
produce more work, and in turn, reject heat as required by the Second Law. Two
engines working together in this way are in what has become known as a combined c
In the case of modern Brayton cycle gas turbine, its Qout (typically at 1,000 oF
(538 oC) is sufficient to produce steam to run a Rankine cycle steam turbine to
generate more electrical power. The combined thermal efficiency (hcc) of the tw
o heat engines (Brayton gas turbine and Rankine steam turbine) can be derived fa
irly simply from the First Law of Thermodynamics and the definition of h (Equ. (
1) to get an expression for the thermal efficiency of the combined cycle (CC) gi
ven by
hcc= hGT + hST - (hGT )(hST )
where hGT and hST are the thermal efficiencies of the Brayton cycle gas turbine
and the Rankine
cycle steam turbine respectively.
That simple equation gives insight as to why combine cycle gas turbine power pla
nts are superstars. Suppose hGT is 40 percent, which is a reasonable upper valu
e for current high performance gas turbines. A reasonable value for a Rankine cy
cle operating at typical CC conditions would be 30 percent. The sum of those two
individual efficiencies minus their product becomes:
hcc= 0.40 + 0.30 - (0.40)(0.30) = 58 percent.

The efficiency of the two turbines working in combined cycle is, in fact, greate
r than either of the two heat engines working separately.

Just how did this leap in power plant efficiency come about? Although the combin
ed cycle power plant concept had been proposed in thermodynamic text books for m
any years, its widespread realization didn t occur until the early 1990s, when the
cumulative effects of long-term gas turbine research and technology ushered in
high temperature gas turbine power plants.
We have come a long way from the very first electrical power plant gas turbine,
which was built and tested by Brown Boveri in 1939. The 4 MW plant, installed at
Neuchatel, Switzerland, had a thermal efficiency of 18 percent, a firing temper
ature (turbine inlet temperature) of 998 oF (537 oC) and a relatively low exhaus
t temperature of about 530 oF (277 oC).
Compare that very first power plant gas turbine with one today, the Mitsubishi H
eavy Industries M701G2 heavy frame G Class gas turbine. It has an output of 334 MW
, an h of 39.5 percent, a firing temperature of 2,732 oF (1,500 oC), and a much
higher exhaust temperature of 1,089 oF (587 oC). Such a high outlet temperature
is eminently suited for combined cycle steam production.
With the much higher exhaust temperature, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries combin
ed cycle power plant has an overall on-site thermal efficiency of 59.1 percent,
yielding an aggregate output of 500 MW. Currently, three of these units with a c
ombined output of 1,500 MW are replacing six conventional steam powered plants (
which ran at 43 percent efficiency) with a total output of 1,050 MW, in one thir
d of the plant area, at Tokyo Electric Power Co. s Kawasaki Thermal Power Station
in Japan.
What is the secret to a three-fold increase in efficiency over 70 years? Hard wo
rk. Probably more funding for research and development has been fruitfully devot
ed to the gas turbine both in its jet engine aviation form and as a power plant than
for any other prime mover. In the last 50 years, for instance, ASME s Internation
al Gas Turbine Institute has had over 15,000 refereed technical papers presented
at its gas turbine conferences. And gas turbine research and development has in
volved a wide range of basic science and technology.
Advanced materials and heat transfer research, for example, has yielded long-liv
ed superalloy turbine blades and vanes (some of them composed of single crystals
; see Crown Jewels, February 2006) that are operated for tens of thousands of hour
s in gas path flows at temperatures greatly exceeding alloy melting points. Expe
rimental work, analysis and computer modeling in fluid mechanics, heat transfer,
and solid mechanics have led to continued advances in compressor and turbine co
mponent performance and life. Gas turbine combustion is constantly being improve
d through chemical and fluid mechanics research. And this list could continue al
most indefinitely.
The gas turbine is every bit as high tech as a fuel cell or a wind turbine, but
its low profile makes it easy to overlook. That's a shame, because as policy mak
ers grapple with the very real challenges facing the world's energy system, the
need for a clean, efficient energy conversion technology will be glaringly appar
ent. How fortunate it is that such a technology already exists, in the form of t
he combined cycle gas turbine, ready to be deployed on a much wider scale.