Water-saving technology developed at MIT could clear the air around nuclear plants

August 9, 2021, 12:14PMNuclear News
The right side of the cooling tower of MIT’s reactor has the new system installed, eliminating its plume of vapor, while the untreated left side continues to produce a steady vapor stream. (Image: MIT/courtesy of the researchers)

The white plumes of steam billowing from the cooling towers of nuclear power plants and other thermal power plants represent an opportunity to some—the opportunity to collect a valued resource, purified water, that is now lost to the atmosphere. A small company called Infinite Cooling is looking to commercialize a technology recently developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Varanasi Research Group, whose work is described in an article written by David L. Chandler, of the MIT News Office, and published on August 3.

How it works: The technology was originally envisioned by professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi. When water vapor passes through a mesh, some of the water will naturally collect on the surface of the mesh. When the mesh is electrified, however, and the water vapor itself is zapped with an ion beam to give it a small electric charge, the water vapor is attracted to the mesh, where it collects and drips down, thanks to gravity, into a collection device.

Reusing collected water in a plant’s cooling system reduces the water needed from a local water system, potentially alleviating water shortages in arid regions. The purity of the collected water means that it could potentially be used in a plant’s boiler system as well, and the system could offer an alternative to conventional desalination plants.

The system is now being prepared for full-scale tests in a commercial power plant and a chemical processing plant, according to MIT.

A nuclear prototype: Maher Damak and Karim Khalil worked on Varanasi’s concept before earning doctoral degrees from MIT. The three won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2018 for their basic concept and turned to the task of testing their technology on an industrial scale.

Chandler reports that after the device was tested at MIT’s natural gas–powered cogeneration plant, MIT nuclear engineering professor and ANS member Jacopo Buongiorno offered the use of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory research facility for a more rigorous test. After the system was installed above one of the plant’s four cooling towers, testing reportedly showed that the water being collected was more than 100 times cleaner than the feedwater coming into the cooling system.

According to MIT, the test proved the effectiveness of the system to handle tough weather and industrial conditions while eliminating the vapor plume and recapturing water.

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