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Rensselaer Licenses Novel Solar Power Technology

Magneto-Hydro-Dynamics (MHD) is derived from Magneto-meaning magnetic field, Hydro-meaning liquid, and Dynamics-meaning movement. MHD generates electricity directly from a body of very hot moving gas without any mechanical moving parts. Magnetohydrodynamics works by using magnets to extract electricity from superheated charged gas. In a sense MHD replaces the wires used in conventional electrical generators with ionized gas. This rendering depicts the solar MHD device that uses power from the sun to generate electricity. The system can also run on biodiesel or jet fuel JP8. In addition, it can also be used as a topping cycle to improve the efficiency to existing power plants.

Right now, more than 6.5 billion people are competing for the Earth’s dwindling supply of fossil fuels. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be 8 to 10 billion, and major advances in energy technology will be required to meet their needs. Rensselaer has faced that challenge by launching and expanding programs in renewable energy sources and energy conservation.

Rensselaer recently announced the signing of an exclusive license agreement with Concentrating Solar Power Utility for a new solar power technology utilizing what is known as magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). The promising technology uses superconducting magnets to increase the efficiency of conversion from sunlight to electricity by stripping electrons from high-energy plasma jets and thereby generating power with no moving parts.

The three co-inventors are Concentrating Solar Power Utility founder Thomas Kay and two Rensselaer faculty members: Douglas Chrisey,  professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Yoav Peles, professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering.

"This science fiction sounding technology uses superconducting magnets to strip electrons from high-energy plasma jets, and generate power with no moving parts."


Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) is derived from the terms magneto—meaning magnetic field; hydro—meaning liquid; and dynamics—meaning movement. MHD uses magnets and plasma to extract electricity from superheated charged gas, and allows the generation of power directly from a body of hot gas without the need for any moving parts. A key benefit of MHD is its ability to operate at higher temperatures, which makes it a strong fit to use in solar power generation.

“In developing this technology, the use of the extremely large superconducting permanent magnets will improve efficiency, and this is even more so when combined with the microchannel cooling process developed by Professor Peles,” said Chrisey.

The team has been working on the project for more than two years. Some of their joint work was, in turn, based on two earlier MHD patents held by Kay.

“Because of the higher temperature, generated solar MHD is more efficient than other types of solar thermal technologies that work at a much lower temperature. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that to generate power from a heat source, such as a burning fuel, the higher the temperature, the more efficient it will be, and that is the key advantage of this green technology,” said Kay, who has worked in solar power since the 1970s.

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