Low-Temperature Stirling Engine for Geothermal Electricity Generation

Period of Performance: 01/01/2012 - 12/31/2012


Phase 1 SBIR

Recipient Firm

Cool Energy, Inc.
5541 Central Ave. #172
Boulder, CO 80301
Principal Investigator, Firm POC


Up to 2700 terawatt-hours per year of geothermal electricity generation capacity has been shown to be available within North America, typically with wells drilled into geologically active regions of the earths crust where this energy is concentrated (Huttrer, 2001). Of this potential, about half is considered to have temperatures high enough for conventional (steam-based) power production, while the other half requires unconventional power conversion approaches, such as organic Rankine cycle systems or Stirling engines. If captured and converted effectively, geothermal power generation could replace up to 100GW of fossil fuel electric power generation, leading to a significant reduction of US power sector emissions. In addition, with the rapid growth of hydro-fracking in oil and gas production, there are smaller-scale distributed power generation opportunities in heated liquids that are co-produced with the main products. Since 2006, Cool Energy, Inc. (CEI) has designed, fabricated and tested four generations of low-temperature (100C to 300C) Stirling engine power conversion equipment. The electric power output of these engines has been demonstrated at over 2kWe and over 16% thermal conversion efficiency for an input temperature of 215C and a rejection temperature of 15C. Initial pilot units have been shipped to development partners for further testing and validation, and significantly larger engines (20+ kWe) have been shown to be feasible and conceptually designed. Originally intended for waste heat recovery (WHR) applications, these engines are easily adaptable to geothermal heat sources, as the heat supply temperatures are similar. Both the current and the 20+ kWe designs use novel approaches of self-lubricating, low-wear-rate bearing surfaces, non- metallic regenerators, and high-effectiveness heat exchangers. By extending CEIs current 3 kWe SolarHeart Engine into the tens of kWe range, many additional applications are possible, as one 20 kWe design produces nearly seven times the power output of the 3 kWe unit but at only 2.5 times the estimated fabrication cost. Phase I of the proposed SBIR program will therefore study the feasibility of generating electricity with one or more 20 kWe or larger Stirling engines, powered by geothermal heat produced by current and possibly some forward-looking borehole extraction methods, and from producing oil and gas wells. The feasibility study will include full analysis of the thermodynamic and heat transfer processes within the engine (necessary to produce optimum theoretical designs and performance maps), the cost of pumping the geothermal heat recovery fluid, and how the system tradeoffs impact the overall system economics. The goal is a geothermal system design that could be demonstrated during a Phase II follow- on program at a field test site.