Energy-Use Minimisation via High Performance Heat-Power-Cooling Conversion and Integration: A Holistic Molecules to Technologies to Systems Approach

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Department of Chemical Engineering


A 4-year multidisciplinary project aimed at minimising primary-energy use in UK industry is proposed, concerned with next-generation technological solutions, identifying the challenges, and assessing the opportunities and benefits (to different stakeholders) resulting from their optimal implementation. Around 20 companies from component manufacturers to industrial end-users have expressed an interest in supporting this project. With this industrial support, the team has the necessary access and is in a prime position to deliver real impact, culminating in the practical demonstration of these solutions.

The proposed project is concerned with specific advancements to two selected energy-conversion technologies with integrated energy-storage capabilities, one for each of: 1) heat-to-power with organic Rankine cycle (ORC) devices; and 2) heat-to-cooling with absorption refrigeration (AR) devices. These technological solutions are capable of recovering and utilising thermal energy from a diverse range of sources in industrial applications. The heat input can come from highly efficient distributed combined heat & power (CHP) units, conventional or renewable sources (solar, geothermal, biomass/gas), or be wasted from industrial processes. With regards to the latter, at least 17% of all UK industrial energy-use is estimated as being wasted as heat, of which only 17% is considered economically recoverable with currently available technology. The successful implementation of these technologies would increase the potential for waste-heat utilisation by a factor of 3.5, from 17% with current technologies to close to 60%.

The in-built, by design, capacity for low-cost thermal storage acts to buffer energy or temperature fluctuations inherent to most real heat sources, allowing smaller conversion devices (for the same average input) and more efficient operation of those devices closer to their design points for longer periods. This will greatly improve the economic proposition of implementing these conversion solutions by simultaneously reducing capital and maintenance costs, and improving performance.

The technologies of interest are promising but are not economically viable currently in the vast majority of applications with >5-20 year paybacks at best. The project involves targeting and resolving pre-identified 'bottleneck' aspects of each technology that can enable step-improvements in maximising performance per unit capital cost. The goal is to enable the widespread uptake of these technologies and their optimal integration with existing energy systems and energy-efficiency strategies, leading to drastic increases performance while lowering costs, thus reducing payback to 3-5 years. It is intended that technological step-changes will be attained by unlocking the synergistic potential of optimised, application-tailored fluids for high efficiency and power, and of innovative components including advanced heat-exchanger configurations and architectures in order to increase thermal transport while simultaneously reducing component size and cost. Important system-level components are included in the project, whose objective is to assess the impact of incorporating these systems in targeted industrial settings, examine technoeconomic feasibility, and identify opportunities relating to optimal integration, control and operation to maximise in-use performance. A dynamic, interactive whole-energy-integration design and assessment platform will be developed to accelerate the implementation of the technological advances, feeding into specific case-studies and facilitating direct recommendations to industry.

Only two international research teams are capable of developing the necessary tools that combine multiscale state-of-the-art molecular thermodynamic theories for fluids, detailed energy-conversion ORC and AR models, and incorporating these into whole-energy-system optimisation platforms. This is truly a world-leading development.

Planned Impact

This project aims to demonstrate next-generation heat to electricity or cooling conversion technologies suitable for industrial applications. Step-changes are proposed in the evolution of two suitable technologies, ORC and DAR devices, that aim to improve performance and also, crucially, to decrease cost and increase flexibility. Considering that ~17% of UK industry energy-use is rejected to the environment in the form of wasted heat, the successful implementation of the outcomes of the project has the significant potential to decrease primary-energy demand, by improving the utilisation of waste-heat by a factor of 3.5, from 17% with current technologies to 60%. The proposed solutions are also capable of recovering and utilising thermal energy from distributed CHP units, and other conventional or renewable sources (biomass/gas, geothermal, solar). The solutions promise payback as low as 2-3 years, significantly lowering the current barriers to uptake. If the identified waste-heat from suitable sources is converted to power, 2-3% of all UK electricity generation could be displaced, replacing 1 average UK coal-fired power station or 3 new CCGT plants.

Value change will be created that will bring benefits to the academic community and stakeholders (e.g. simulation-guided novel fluids), the lead users and manufacturers (new heat-exchanger configurations with high power-density, reduced size and cost) and the end-users (reduced energy demand, independence, competitive advantage), and also more wide-ranging societal benefits in terms of enhancing economic, environmental and social sustainability.

The project has the potential to lead to breakthrough energy-utilisation solutions, transforming industrial practices, leading to step-changes in energy-input reductions to industrial processes, emission reductions and significantly increased resilience to uncertainty in primary-energy supply. It will lead to transformative improvements in materials and equipment design and process operation with substantial efficiency gains, and give the UK a significant lead in the design, development, manufacture, installation, operation and knowhow of these technologies and their implementation.

A detailed plan with regards to impact on knowledge, the economy, society and people has been prepared, based on the experience of the investigators in similar projects, including, for example, an Industry Engagement Programme (IEP) aimed specifically at interacting with our partner companies, identifying new interested industrial end-users (and component manufacturers, or installers), and interacting with partners during the case-studies. Furthermore, the team has close links with, and support from, a large number of industrial partners and smaller spin-out companies who will benefit greatly from the results of the proposed research, either directly from the findings or secondments and exchanges. We also have start-up/entrepreneurship experience, foster close links with DECC, DCLG, R&D and technology translation initiatives such as the Technology Partnership (TTP) and Carbon Trust, have been part of numerous non-academic networks, and have a strong technology transfer track record, e.g.: PSE, Hexxcell, Thermofluidics.

This project will supply the next generation of highly skilled energy technology and systems researchers and entrepreneurs, delivering a range of societal impacts underpinned by the enhanced sustainability of UK industrial processes: 1) sustainable and more-efficient processes, energy, power and manufacturing due to superior equipment design and processes operation resulting in reduced energy requirements manufacturing, reduced downtime, waste and primary energy demand; 2) new technologies and routes, via both power and cooling including storage, for enhanced energy efficiency and low emissions towards a sustainable and decarbonised energy society; as well as 3) engaging policy-related contacts and young people/public engagements.


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