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Stirling Engines for Low-Temperature Solar-Thermal-Electric Power Generation

Minassians, Artin Der
Technical Report Identifier: EECS-2007-172
December 20, 2007

Abstract: This dissertation discusses the design and development of a distributed solar-thermal-electric power generation system that combines solar-thermal technology with a moderate-temperature Stirling engine to generate electricity. The conceived system incorporates low-cost materials and utilizes simple manufacturing processes. This technology is expected to achieve manufacturing cost of less than $1/W. Since solar-thermal technology is mature, the analysis, design, and experimental assessment of moderate-temperature Stirling engines is the main focus of this thesis.

The design, fabrication, and test of a single-phase free-piston Stirling engine prototype is discussed. This low-power prototype is designed and fabricated as a test rig to provide a clear understanding of the Stirling cycle operation, to identify the key components and the major causes of irreversibility, and to verify corresponding theoretical models. As a component, the design of a very low-loss resonant displacer piston subsystem is discussed. The displacer piston is part of a magnetic circuit that provides both a required stiffness and actuation forces. The stiffness is provided by a magnetic spring, which incorporates an array of permanent magnets and has a very linear stiffness characteristic that facilitates the frequency tuning. In this prototype, the power piston is not mechanically linked to the displacer piston and forms a mass-spring resonating subsystem with the engine chamber gas spring and has resonant frequency matched to that of the displacer. The fabricated engine prototype is successfully tested and the experimental results are presented and discussed. Extensive experimentation on individual component subsystems confirms the theoretical models and design considerations, providing a sound basis for higher power Stirling engine designs for residential or commercial deployments.

Multi-phase Stirling engine systems are also considered and analyzed. The modal analysis of these machines proves their self-starting potential. The start-up temperature, i.e., the heater temperature at which the system starts its operation, is derived based on the same modal analysis. Following the mathematical modeling, the design, fabrication, and test of a symmetric three-phase free-piston Stirling engine system are discussed. The system is designed to operate with moderate-temperature heat input that is consistent with solar-thermal collectors. Diaphragm pistons and nylon flexures are considered for this prototype to eliminate surface friction and provide appropriate seals. The experimental results are presented and compared with design calculations. Experimental assessments confirm the models for flow friction and gas spring hysteresis dissipation. It is revealed that gas spring hysteresis loss is an important dissipation phenomenon in low-power low-pressure Stirling engines, and should be carefully addressed during the design as it may hinder the engine operation. Further analysis shows that the gas hysteresis dissipation can be reduced drastically by increasing the number of phases in a system with a little compromise on the operating frequency and, hence, the output power. It is further shown that for an even number of phases, half of the pistons could be eliminated by utilizing a reverser. By introducing a reverser to the fabricated system, the system proves its self-starting capability in engine mode and validates the derived expressions for computing the start-up temperature.