A parabolic trough is a type of solar thermal collector that is straight in one dimension and curved as a parabola in the other two, lined with a polished metal mirror. The energy of sunlight which enters the mirror parallel to its plane of symmetry is focused along the focal line, where objects are positioned that are intended to be heated. For example, food may be placed at the focal line of a trough, which causes the food to be cooked when the trough is aimed so the Sun is in its plane of symmetry. Further information on the use of parabolic troughs for cooking can be found in the article about solar cookers.
For other purposes, there is often a tube, frequently a Dewar tube, which runs the length of the trough at its focal line. The mirror is oriented so that sunlight which it reflects is concentrated on the tube, which contains a fluid which is heated to a high temperature by the energy of the sunlight. The hot fluid can be used for many purposes. Often, it is piped to a heat engine, which uses the heat energy to drive machinery or to generate electricity. This solar energy collector is the most common and best known type of parabolic trough. The paragraphs below therefore concentrate on this type.
The trough is usually aligned on a north-south axis, and rotated to track the sun as it moves across the sky each day. Alternatively, the trough can be aligned on an east-west axis; this reduces the overall efficiency of the collector due to cosine loss but only requires the trough to be aligned with the change in seasons, avoiding the need for tracking motors. This tracking method approaches theoretical efficiencies at the spring and fall equinoxes with less accurate focusing of the light at other times during the year. The daily motion of the sun across the sky also introduces errors, greatest at the sunrise and sunset and smallest at solar noon. Due to these sources of error, seasonally adjusted parabolic troughs are generally designed with a lower concentration acceptance product.
Parabolic trough concentrators have a simple geometry, but their concentration is about 1/3 of the theoretical maximum for the same acceptance angle, that is, for the same overall tolerances of the system to all kinds of errors, including those referenced above. The theoretical maximum is better achieved with more elaborate concentrators based on primary-secondary designs using nonimaging optics which may nearly double the concentration of conventional parabolic troughs and are used to improve practical designs such as those with fixed receivers.
Heat transfer fluid (usually thermal oil) runs through the tube to absorb the concentrated sunlight. This increases the temperature of the fluid to some 400 °C. The heat transfer fluid is then used to heat steam in a standard turbine generator. The process is economical and, for heating the pipe, thermal efficiency ranges from 60-80%. The overall efficiency from collector to grid, i.e. (Electrical Output Power)/(Total Impinging Solar Power) is about 15%, similar to PV (Photovoltaic Cells) but less than Stirling dish concentrators.
Most mirrors used are parabolic and single-piece. In addition, V-type parabolic troughs exist which are made from 2 mirrors and placed at an angle towards each other.
In 2009, scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and SkyFuel teamed to develop large curved sheets of metal that have the potential to be 30% less expensive than today's best collectors of concentrated solar power by replacing glass-based models with a silver polymer sheet that has the same performance as the heavy glass mirrors, but at a much lower cost and much lower weight. It also is much easier to deploy and install. The glossy film uses several layers of polymers, with an inner layer of pure silver.
As this renewable source of energy is inconsistent by nature, methods for energy storage have been studied, for instance the single-tank (thermocline) storage technology for large-scale solar thermal power plants. The thermocline tank approach uses a mixture of silica sand and quartzite rock to displace a significant portion of the volume in the tank. Then it is filled with the heat transfer fluid, typically a molten nitrate salt.
Enclosed trough systems are used to produce process heat. The design encapsulates the solar thermal system within a greenhouse-like glasshouse. The glasshouse creates a protected environment to withstand the elements that can negatively impact reliability and efficiency of the solar thermal system. Lightweight curved solar-reflecting mirrors are suspended from the ceiling of the glasshouse by wires. A single-axis tracking system positions the mirrors to retrieve the optimal amount of sunlight. The mirrors concentrate the sunlight and focus it on a network of stationary steel pipes, also suspended from the glasshouse structure. Water is carried throughout the length of the pipe, which is boiled to generate steam when intense sun radiation is applied. Sheltering the mirrors from the wind allows them to achieve higher temperature rates and prevents dust from building up on the mirrors.
Early commercial adaption
In 1897, Frank Shuman, a U.S. inventor, engineer and solar energy pioneer built a small demonstration solar engine that worked by reflecting solar energy onto square boxes filled with ether, which has a lower boiling point than water, and were fitted internally with black pipes which in turn powered a steam engine. In 1908 Shuman formed the Sun Power Company with the intent of building larger solar power plants. He, along with his technical advisor A.S.E. Ackermann and British physicist Sir Charles Vernon Boys, developed an improved system using mirrors to reflect solar energy upon collector boxes, increasing heating capacity to the extent that water could now be used instead of ether. Shuman then constructed a full-scale steam engine powered by low-pressure water, enabling him to patent the entire solar engine system by 1912.
Shuman built the world’s first solar thermal power station in Maadi, Egypt between 1912 and 1913. Shuman’s plant used parabolic troughs to power a 45-52 kilowatt (60-70 hp) engine that pumped more than 22,000 litres of water per minute from the Nile River to adjacent cotton fields. Although the outbreak of World War I and the discovery of cheap oil in the 1930s discouraged the advancement of solar energy, Shuman’s vision and basic design were resurrected in the 1970s with a new wave of interest in solar thermal energy. In 1916 Shuman was quoted in the media advocating solar energy's utilization, saying:
Main article: List of solar thermal power stations
Most commercial plants utilizing parabolic troughs are hybrids; fossil fuels are used during night hours, but the amount of fossil fuel used is limited to a maximum 27% of electricity production, allowing the plant to qualify in the US as a renewable energy source. Because they are hybrids and include cooling stations, condensers, accumulators and other things besides the actual solar collectors, the power generated per square meter of area varies enormously.
As of 2014, the largest solar thermal power systems using parabolic trough technology include, the 354 MW SEGS plants in California, the 280 MW Solana Generating Station that features a molten salt heat storage, the 250 MW Genesis Solar Energy Project, that came online in 2014, as well as the Spanish 200 MW Solaben Solar Power Station, the 200 MW Solnova Solar Power Station, and the Andasol 1 solar power station, using a Eurotrough-collector.
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