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  • Boost from the sun could help gas power plants generate more electricity

    Washington state project is designed to do just that
  • RICHLAND, Wash. — Solar power remains a hard sell in the United States, but researchers in Washington have developed a way to harness the heat of the sun to boost the efficiency of conventional power plants.
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  • RICHLAND, Wash. — Solar power remains a hard sell in the United States, but researchers in Washington have developed a way to harness the heat of the sun to boost the efficiency of conventional power plants.
    The new technology allows a natural gas-fired plant to generate 25 percent more electricity from the same amount of fuel. And it also reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, says Robert Wegeng, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, or PNNL, engineer who's leading the project.
    Wegeng and his colleagues are testing the system this summer on the PNNL campus near the Columbia River, where it's not uncommon for the blistering sun to drive temperatures into triple digits. "It will work best in a dry, sunny environment," Wegeng said. "In Eastern Washington our sun is pretty good."
    The flashiest part of the device is a mirrored, parabolic dish that concentrates the sun's rays onto the business end of the operation: a sleek pod about 4 feet long crammed with wiring and machinery. When the sun is shining, temperatures inside the pod approach 1,500 degrees — hot enough, with an assist from a catalyst, to blast apart the chemical bonds in a mixture of natural gas and water. The result is another fuel, called syngas, which burns better and releases more energy than natural gas.
    Climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions drop because a power plant equipped with a solar-booster wouldn't have to burn as much fuel. "Of all the projects I've worked on at PNNL, this is probably the most economically viable," said systems engineer Rick Cameron. "No matter what the price (of natural gas) is, you can improve the energy value."
    But as with all energy technologies, the system's commercial fate will hinge on cost and practicality, which have yet to be demonstrated. "It's a development effort, and it's a stretch to get there," Wegeng said.
    The PNNL approach builds on what's called solar thermal energy production. Instead of relying on photovoltaic cells to directly convert sunlight into energy, solar thermal plants use mirrored, parabolic troughs or dishes to concentrate sunlight and tap the resulting heat to drive steam turbines.
    The PNNL system takes advantage of the solar heat to drive a chemical reaction instead of using it to create steam.
    The project was launched with $750,000 in federal stimulus money. The experimental phase is funded with about $3.5 million from the Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative to advance solar technology, and $850,000 from industrial partner SolarThermoChemical LLC.
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