An Investigation of Phase Change Material (PCM)-Based Ocean Thermal Energy Harvesting


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Virginia Tech


Phase change material (PCM)-based ocean thermal energy harvesting is a relatively new method, which extracts the thermal energy from the temperature gradient in the ocean thermocline. Its basic idea is to utilize the temperature variation along the ocean water depth to cyclically freeze and melt a specific kind of PCM. The volume expansion, which happens in the melting process, is used to do useful work (e.g., drive a turbine generator), thereby converting a fraction of the absorbed thermal energy into mechanical energy or electrical energy. Compared to other ocean energy technologies (e.g., wave energy converters, tidal current turbines, and ocean thermal energy conversion), the proposed PCM-based approach can be easily implemented at a small scale with a relatively simple structural system, which makes it a promising method to extend the range and service life of battery-powered devices, e.g, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). This dissertation presents a combined theoretical and experimental study of the PCM-based ocean thermal energy harvesting approach, which aims at demonstrating the feasibility of the proposed approach and investigating possible methods to improve the overall performance of prototypical systems. First, a solid/liquid phase change thermodynamic model is developed, based on which a specific upperbound of the thermal efficiency is derived for the PCM-based approach. Next, a prototypical PCM-based ocean thermal energy harvesting system is designed, fabricated, and tested. To predict the performance of specific systems, a thermo-mechanical model, which couples the thermodynamic behaviors of the fluid materials and the elastic behavior of the structural system, is developed and validated based on the comparison with the experimental measurement. For the purpose of design optimization, the validated thermo-mechanical model is employed to conduct a parametric study. Based on the results of the parametric study, a new scalable and portable PCM-based ocean thermal energy harvesting system is developed and tested. In addition, the thermo-mechanical model is modified to account for the design changes. However, a combined analysis of the results from both the prototypical system and the model reveals that achieving a good performance requires maintaining a high internal pressure, which will complicate the structural design. To mitigate this issue, the idea of using a hydraulic accumulator to regulate the internal pressure is proposed, and experimentally and theoretically examined. Finally, a spatial-varying Robin transmission condition for fluid-structure coupled problems with strong added-mass effect is proposed and investigated using fluid structure interaction (FSI) model problems. This can be a potential method for the future research on the fluid-structure coupled numerical analysis of AUVs, which are integrated with and powered by the PCM-based thermal energy harvesting devices.



Renewable Energy, Energy harvesting, Phase Change Materials, Thermodynamics, Model Validation