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Molten salts help solar heat up

A solar power plant uses a series of mirrors to focus sunlight and heat a fluid, which is then channeled to a station and converted to steam to run a turbine to generate electricity.

Most solar plants, says Satish Mohapatra, employ heat-transfer fluids derived from oil; these typically withstand temperatures of only 400 degrees Centigrade before they begin to degrade.

Mohapatra is president and CEO of Dynalene Inc., a heat-transfer company based in Coplay, PA. Working with Sudhakar Neti and Alparslan Oztekin, professors of mechanical engineering and mechanics at Lehigh, Dynalene has developed and tested heat-transfer fluids derived from molten salts that can withstand temperatures of up to 565 degrees C.

The three-year collaboration is funded by Dynalene with matching funds from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Dynalene fluids, MS-1 and MS-2, are used now for thermal storage in small heaters, for petrochemical and gas processing, and for other industrial applications requiring high-temperature heat-transfer fluids. the construction of new solar power plants has slowed, says Mohapatra. When the industry recovers, he says, Dynalene will be ready to supply MS-1 and MS-2 to new plants, which will be designed to use salt-based heat-transfer fluids.

MS-1 and MS-2 consist of various types of nitrates that have been tested in Dynalene’s labs. the company helps customers design heat-transfer systems that are suited to salt-based heat-transfer fluids. In a second collaboration, engineers from Dynalene and from Lehigh’s emulsion polymers institute have developed a fluid that cools fuel cells by using polymeric nanoparticles to suppress the accumulation of ions and thus achieve low electrical conductivity. This project has been funded since 2003 through the U.S. department of energy’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

In a related project, Dynalene, along with Lehigh chemical engineers Eric Daniels and Andrew Klein, used funding from the U.S. department of defense to develop hybrid nanoparticles capable of cooling military electronics. That collaboration also involved the Air Force research lab in Dayton, Ohio, and the University of Dayton Research Institute.