A researcher team at MIT led by professors Evelyn Wang and Jing Kong, has developed a way of coating copper with graphene. An important use would be condensing steam back to water. A thin coating on copper condensers could make power plants more efficient, the MIT scientists report.

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. The 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.

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

The findings have been published in the journal Nano Letters.

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, MIT graduate student Daniel Preston said, That would be 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.

Graphene Copper Coating Comparison at MIT.  Click oage for more info.

Graphene Copper Coating Comparison at MIT. Click oage for more info.

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 water film, Preston explained, 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 said, “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 100ยบ 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 noted, 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 said. And the process should be easily scalable to power plant-sized condenser coils.

Two to three percent isn’t a “big number” until one looks at the fuel bill for a power plant where its a huge number. Its also a big part of the power plant build schedule for a year in the U.S. This looks like important, way behind the scenes work that has a payoff we might not notice other than the rate increases are put off a while longer.

Thanks to the MIT team.


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