Graphene layer could quadruple rate of condensation heat transfer in generating plants

June 1, 2015 by David L. Chandler, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
An uncoated copper condenser tube (top left) is shown next to a similar tube coated with graphene (top right). When exposed to water vapor at 100 degrees Celsius, the uncoated tube produces an inefficient water film (bottom left), while the coated shows the more desirable dropwise condensation (bottom right).

Most of the world's electricity-producing power plants—whether powered by coal, natural gas, or nuclear fission—make electricity by generating steam that turns a turbine. That steam then is condensed back to water, and the cycle begins again.

But the condensers that collect the steam are quite inefficient, and improving them could make a big difference in overall power plant efficiency.

Now, a team of researchers at MIT has developed a way of coating these condenser surfaces with a layer of graphene, just one atom thick, and found that this can improve the rate of by a factor of four—and potentially even more than that, with further work. And unlike , the graphene coatings have proven to be highly durable in laboratory tests.

The findings are reported in the journal Nano Letters by MIT graduate student Daniel Preston, professors Evelyn Wang and Jing Kong, and two others. The improvement in condenser heat transfer, which is just one step in the power-production cycle, could lead to an overall improvement in power plant efficiency of 2 to 3 percent based on figures from the Electric Power Research Institute, Preston says—enough to make a significant dent in global carbon emissions, since such plants represent the vast majority of the world's electricity generation. "That translates into millions of dollars per power plant per year," he explains.

There are two basic ways in which the condensers—which may take the form of coiled metal tubes, often made of copper—interact with the flow of steam. In some cases, the steam condenses to form a thin sheet of water that coats the surface; in others it forms water droplets that are pulled from the surface by gravity.

When the steam forms a film, Preston explains, that impedes heat transfer—and thus reduces the efficiency—of condensation. So the goal of much research has been to enhance droplet formation on these surfaces by making them water-repelling.

Often this has been accomplished using polymer coatings, but these tend to degrade rapidly in the high heat and humidity of a power plant. And when the coatings are made thicker to reduce that degradation, the coatings themselves impede heat transfer.

"We thought graphene could be useful," Preston says, "since we know it is hydrophobic by nature." So he and his colleagues decided to test both graphene's ability to shed water, and its durability, under typical power plant conditions—an environment of pure water vapor at 100 degrees Celsius.

They found that the single-atom-thick coating of graphene did indeed improve heat transfer fourfold compared with surfaces where the condensate forms sheets of water, such as bare metals. Further calculations showed that optimizing temperature differences could boost this improvement to 5 to 7 times. The researchers also showed that after two full weeks under such conditions, there was no measurable degradation in the graphene's performance.

By comparison, similar tests using a common water-repelling coating showed that the coating began to degrade within just three hours, Preston says, and failed completely within 12 hours.

Because the process used to coat the graphene on the copper surface—called chemical vapor deposition—has been tested extensively, the new method could be ready for testing under real-world conditions "in as little as a year," Preston says. And the process should be easily scalable to power plant-sized condenser coils.

"This work is extremely significant because, to my knowledge, it is the first report of durable dropwise condensation with a single-layer surface coating," says Jonathan Boreyko, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech who has studied condensation on superhydrophobic surface. "These findings are somewhat surprising and very exciting."

Boreyko, who was not involved in the research, adds that this method, if proven through further testing, "could significantly improve the efficiency of and other systems that utilize condensers."

Explore further: Water-shedding surfaces can be made to last

More information: "Scalable Graphene Coatings for Enhanced Condensation Heat Transfer" Nano Lett., 2015, 15 (5), pp 2902–2909 DOI: 10.1021/nl504628s

Related Stories

Water-shedding surfaces can be made to last

September 20, 2013

Steam condensation is key to the worldwide production of electricity and clean water: It is part of the power cycle that drives 85 percent of all electricity-generating plants and about half of all desalination plants globally, ...

Better droplet condensation could boost power efficiency

June 24, 2013

Researchers at MIT have developed an innovative approach to improving heat transfer in power plants and cooling systems. The new system could provide a 100 percent improvement in the efficiency of heat transfer over conventional ...

Electric fields can push droplets from surfaces

December 20, 2013

Researchers at MIT have followed up on their discovery that droplets of water acquire an electric charge when jumping from certain condenser surfaces by finding a way to make use of that effect: They found that by applying ...

Droplets get a charge out of jumping

October 2, 2013

In a completely unexpected finding, MIT researchers have discovered that tiny water droplets that form on a superhydrophobic surface, and then "jump" away from that surface, carry an electric charge. The finding could lead ...

Jumping droplets help heat transfer

January 3, 2013

Many industrial plants depend on water vapor condensing on metal plates: In power plants, the resulting water is then returned to a boiler to be vaporized again; in desalination plants, it yields a supply of clean water. ...

Artificial muscles get graphene boost

May 22, 2015

Researchers in South Korea have developed an electrode consisting of a single-atom-thick layer of carbon to help make more durable artificial muscles.

Recommended for you

Sculpting stable structures in pure liquids

February 21, 2019

Oscillating flow and light pulses can be used to create reconfigurable architecture in liquid crystals. Materials scientists can carefully engineer concerted microfluidic flows and localized optothermal fields to achieve ...

Researchers make coldest quantum gas of molecules

February 21, 2019

JILA researchers have made a long-lived, record-cold gas of molecules that follow the wave patterns of quantum mechanics instead of the strictly particle nature of ordinary classical physics. The creation of this gas boosts ...

LMC S154 is a symbiotic recurrent nova, study suggests

February 21, 2019

Astronomers have conducted observations of a symbiotic star in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), known as LMC S154, which provide new insights about the nature of this object. Results of these observations, presented in a ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Jun 01, 2015
Why don't they just electrostatically charge the copper pipes and let the condensation drops just fly off.
not rated yet Jun 01, 2015
Useful and practical research. How easy is it likely to be to retrofit this to existing plant?
3 / 5 (2) Jun 01, 2015
marko asked
Why don't they just electrostatically charge the copper pipes and let the condensation drops just fly off.
By electrostatically you would touch on the general issues of electrolysis, if you were to charge the copper pipe as negative you attract hydrogen species side of the water molecule as per water but also attract other polarised molecules with similar orientation issues.

If you were to charge positively you attract the oxygen side - leading to corrosion ie Copper in close contact with oxygen & mobile electrons, potentially disastrous.

The former may be more palatable but, under what conditions, there are systems reliability issues re generating that potential - a passive layer that once produced needs no power or extra infrastructure and thus has less risk assessment issues ie Analysis of Alternatives, good practice in any system whether electronic, mechanical, commercial etc

And I might add also research developmental re time vs outcome
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 01, 2015
These could be very useful for water desalination plants as well couldn't they?
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 01, 2015
These could be very useful for water desalination plants as well couldn't they?

I should think so. Also booze distilling? Faster whiskey production!
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) Jun 01, 2015
These could be very useful for water desalination plants as well couldn't they?

I should think so. Also booze distilling? Faster whiskey production!

Nope... good whiskey is aged...
not rated yet Jun 06, 2015
Excellent work! These improvements keep adding up and improving our prosperity.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.