The alkali metal thermal to electric converter (AMTEC), originally called the sodium heat engine (SHE) was invented by Joseph T. Kummer and Neill Weber at Ford in 1966, and is described in US Patents 3,404,036; 3,458,356; 3,535,163; and 4,049,877; it is a thermally regenerative electrochemical device for the direct conversion of heat to electrical energy. (1,2) It is characterized by high potential efficiencies and no moving parts except the working fluid, which make it a candidate for space power applications.(2)
This device accepts a heat input in a range from about 900 K–1300 K and produces direct current with predicted device efficiencies of 15-40%. In the AMTEC sodium is driven around a closed thermodynamic cycle between a high temperature heat reservoir and a cooler reservoir at the heat rejection temperature. The unique feature of the AMTEC cycle is that sodium ion conduction between a high pressure or activity region and a low pressure or activity region on either side of a highly ionically conducting refractory solid electrolyte, is thermodynamically nearly equivalent to an isothermal expansion of sodium vapor between the same high and low pressure. Electrochemical oxidation of neutral sodium at the anode leads to sodium ions which traverse the solid electrolyte and electrons which travel from the anode through an external circuit where they perform electrical work, to the low pressure cathode, where they recombine with the ions to produce low pressure sodium gas. The sodium gas generated at the cathode then travels to a condenser at the heat rejection temperature of perhaps 400–700 K where liquid sodium reforms. The AMTEC thus is an electrochemical concentration cell which converts the work generated by expansion of sodium vapor directly into electric power.
The converter is based on the electrolyte used in the sodium-sulfur battery, sodium beta"-alumina, a crystalline phase of somewhat variable composition containing aluminum oxide, Al2O3, and sodium oxide, Na2O, in a nominal ratio of 5:1, and a small amount of the oxide of a small cation metal, usually lithium or magnesium, which stabilizes the beta" crystal structure. The sodium beta"-alumina solid electrolyte (BASE) is nearly insulating with respect to transport of electrons, and is a thermodynamically stable phase in contact with both liquid sodium and sodium at low pressure.
Single cell AMTECs with open voltages as high as > 1.55 V and maximum power density as high as > 0.50 W/cm² at temperature of 1173K (900°C) have been obtained with long term stable refractory metal electrodes.(3)
Efficiency of AMTEC cells has reached 16% in the laboratory.( reference?) High voltage multi-tube modules are predicted to be 20% to 25% efficient, and power densities up to 0.2 kilowatts per liter appear to be achievable in the near future.(ref?) Calculations show that replacing sodium with a potassium working fluid increases the peak efficiency from 28% to 31% at 1100 K with a 1 mm thick BASE tube. (ref?)
Most work on AMTECs has concerned sodium working fluid devices. Potassium AMTECs have been run with potassium beta" alumina solid electrolyte ceramics, and show improved power at lower operating temperatures compared with sodium AMTECs.( 4-7 )
A detailed quantitative model of the mass transport and intefacial kinetics behavior of AMTEC electrodes has been developed and used to fit and analyze the performance of a wide variety of electrodes, and make predictions of the performance of optimized electrodes.(8,9) The interfacial electrochemical kinetics can be further described quantitatively with a tunneling, diffusion, and desorption model.(10,11) A reversible thermodynamic cycle for AMTEC shows that it is, at best, slightly less efficient than a Carnot cycle.(12)
AMTEC requires energy input at modest elevated temperatures, and not at a specific wavelength, it is easily adapted to any heat source, including radioisotope, concentrated solar, external combustion, or nuclear reactor. A solar thermal power conversion system based on an AMTEC has advantages over other technologies (including photovoltaic systems) in terms of the total power that can be achieved with such a system and the simplicity of the system (which includes the collector, energy storage (thermal storage with phase change material) and power conversion in a compact unit). The overall system could achieve as high as 14 W/kg with present collector technology and future AMTEC conversion efficiencies.(reference?) The energy storage system outperforms batteries, and the temperatures at which the system operates allows long life and reduced radiator size (heat reject temperature of 600 K).(reference?) Deep-space applications would use radioisotope thermoelectric generators; hybrid systems are in design. (reference?)
While space power systems are of intrinsic interest, terrestrial applications will offer large scale applications for AMTEC systems. At the +25% efficiency projected for the device and projected costs of $350/kW, AMTEC is expected to prove useful for a very wide variety of distributed generation applications including self-powered fans for high efficiency furnaces and water heaters and recreational vehicle power supplies(reference?) Cathodic protection of pipelines, remote telemetry from oil well sites are other areas where this type of electrical generation might be used. The potential to scavenge waste heat may allow for integration of this technology into general residential and commercial cogeneration schemes although costs per kilowatt-hour would have to drop substantially from current projections.
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