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Alcoa and NREL Testing New Concentrating Solar Power System

April 27, 2010

In mid-March, Alcoa announced that it is jointly testing an advanced concentrating solar power (CSP) technology with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).  The goal is to lower the cost of CSP technology and thus make it competitive in the United States.

NREL and Alcoa recently installed a new Alcoa-designed Concentrating Solar Power parabolic trough at NREL’s test facility in Golden, Colorado. The series of tests will measure the 20-foot by 46-foot collector’s efficiency to generate energy and evaluate its structural performance. This round of validation at NREL follows successful tests at Alcoa Technical Center outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"NREL is looking forward to performing outdoor efficiency tests on the innovative new parabolic trough collector developed by Alcoa,” said Dr. Chuck Kutscher, manager of NREL's Thermal Systems Group. “We are excited to see a major U.S.-based manufacturer entering the concentrating solar power market through the financial support of the U.S. Department of Energy's Funding Opportunity Announcement Program."

Commercial CSP systems installed to date use glass mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect the solar energy and convert it to heat. This thermal energy can then be used to produce utility-scale electricity via a steam turbine.

Instead of glass mirrors, the Alcoa system uses highly reflective, thin-film enhanced aluminum mirrors, which have lower reflectivity but offer greater design flexibility than the thick silvered glass mirrors used in today’s commercial plants. The Alcoa design enables high-volume manufacturing techniques to lower installation costs. Furthermore, its monolithic structure enables a simple “drop-in-place” collector for easy installation. The Alcoa design includes sheet, extrusions, and fasteners.

“We understand the end-customers’ need to lower the capital investment in these systems in order to lower the cost of energy,” said Alcoa’s Director of Development Laboratories, Dr. Eric F. M. Winter. “After listening to numerous industry experts, our multi-faceted team combined its materials knowledge with design, manufacturing and engineered finishes capabilities to develop a system solution that enables manufacturers to more easily scale up to meet the growing demand for this solar technology.”

The project is being partially funded by a $2.1 million DOE grant. Test results are expected by the second quarter of 2010, after which the system will enter its next level of large-scale testing.

For more information, see the March 18 Alcoa press release.

—Karen Atkison