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Strangeloves Energy Blog

A Chronicle of Forgotten, Suppressed and Purged Energy Concepts
Issue 1 - The Forgotten Hydro
The Hydraulic Air Compressor (HAC)
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, than to take a lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because, the innovation has for enemies, all those that have done well under the old conditions and but lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. Machiavelli Many past innovative energy concepts that have relevance for today have been forgotten or deliberately suppressed most often under the guise of sheltering shortterm profits.

This article reintroduces the concept of the hydraulic air compressor (HAC) which was first developed around 600 years ago. In the US and Canada the HAC was rediscovered and further developed some 100 years ago to provide air both for mine ventilation and to safely drive mine machinery. One facility near Montreal, Canada (Ragged Chute) operated for many years starting in 1910 but was permanently shut down (dynamited) in the 1980s by Ontario Hydro. Because the HAC has no moving parts, almost no maintenance is required. After Ragged Chute was decommissioned the HAC largely disappeared from text books and from consideration by engineers in general. A photograph of the air blowing-off through the tail-shaft (up-pipe) at Ragged Chute shortly before its closure is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Air Blowing-off at Ragged Chute Air Plant

A sketch of the Ragged Chute compressed air plant (Figure 2) shows in cross-section how the system was laid-out. It is essentially a large U-tube with an air separation cavern and a pipe system that conveys the air under pressure to the surface to drive machinery or to generate electricity.

Figure 2 Cross-Section of the Ragged Chute Hydraulic Air Compressor

Now that you have an idea of what a HAC looks like let me answer a couple of frequently asked questions. What exactly is this hydraulic air compressor? The HAC is an energy transducer and transformer. It typically has been used in the past to convert low head, high flow hydraulic energy to high pressure, low flow, pneumatic energy. But less well known is the fact that it also efficiently converts high head, low flow hydraulic energy to high flow, high pressure pneumatic energy. This is emphasized because the HAC has been dismissed in the past because it was assumed to require high water flows. Well how does this system work? The HAC is a device that generates energy from falling water but in a much different manner than conventional hydro. A HAC uses water falling down a vertical head-shaft (see Figure 2) to entrain air and convey it downward as bubbles and pressurize it. This head-shaft terminates at depth in a large tank or cavern where the air separates from the water. The buoyant air bubbles tend to rise against the flow but the drag forces exerted by the water (provided the water velocity exceeds a critical velocity) carry the bubbles downward. The separated air in the bottom tank is under a pressure equal to the head or column of water in the tail-shaft. There is a difference in head between the inlet of the head-shaft and the outlet of the tail-shaft. It is this head differential that drives the water through the system and provides the energy to compress the air. The depth of the tail-shaft that returns the water to the surface fixes the air pressure that is available. The air mass flow produced varies with water flow and the head available, which for many systems, will be near constant, perhaps varying slowly with the seasonal variations in rainfall.

A more modern example of the HAC that uses a single shaft excavation is shown in Figure 3. The HAC is not a direct threat to conventional hydro but it does have the potential of being used in niche applications where operation of conventional hydro is difficult. The most obvious is in applications where sedimentation or siltation is a major problem. With no moving parts silt and even small sized gravel can pass through the HAC without damaging the structure.
Compressed Air Out (Depleted Oxygen) Air Inlet

Water Outlet To Base Of Dam Water/Air Inspirator Water From Impoundment



Separator Tank

Bottom Of Shaft

Figure 3 Single Shaft Hydraulic Air Compressor The HAC can even be used to de-silt dams that are no longer operable while producing significant levels of electrical power. However, the fact that power has to be extracted from the compressed air through expansion tends to limit its application to niche areas. If no thermal energy is added to the compressed air before expansion the air leaving the expander will be very cold. Roughly half the energy extracted emerges as refrigeration and the other half as electrical power. Using expanders with air pressure ratios on the order of 10:1 exhaust air temperatures will be around -130 F and enough to flash-freeze an elephant - if so desired. This is actually one of the most efficient ways of producing high levels of refrigeration. Unfortunately if refrigeration is not required near the site then there is a reduced incentive to use a HAC in this fashion. However, if thermal energy is added to the air through combustion of a fuel (green or otherwise) or even by solar thermal means, between two and four times the energy levels of a simple hydro system can be generated. Again this is a niche application. Essentially if high sedimentation or siltation rates are a problem and fuel is available then the HAC is the system to use otherwise use standard hydro. The combination of solar thermal power and the HAC creates a unique cycle with power output efficiency levels that can exceed 100% - depending on the definition of efficiency. But it probably is the most efficient way of converting solar thermal energy into electrical power. The hybrid system of solar thermal and

the HAC is unique in that two renewable energy sources are used synergistically to provide highly efficient power generation. A fired combustion system would be used in parallel with the solar thermal system to provide the needed energy at night and on overcast days. This total power generation package if employed could export high electrical power levels with very high efficiencies typically in excess of 80%. Solar thermal tower systems such as those produced by a number of commercial companies could be used to heat the HAC supplied air. Hydraulic air compression is very efficient because it occurs at near isothermal conditions. This type of air compression uses significantly less energy than mechanical compressors that operate under near adiabatic conditions. The HAC can produce virtually any air flow and pressure provided the needed water flow and head is available. A fired HAC system can be thought of as a combination of an HAC with a gas turbine (GT). In combining a gas turbine with a HAC the HAC is substituted for the mechanical compressor which is removed completely. The HAC/GT hybrid does not respond to the turbine inlet temperature (TIT) as the mechanical system did and is completely independent of the turbo-expander. A recuperator would normally be used in a HAC cycle to take advantage of the cold air supply and improve system efficiency. In addition a variable speed generator or alternator typically would be employed to allow shaft speeds to vary when needed. The power produced in such a system depends primarily on the turbine inlet temperature and Figure 4 shows the efficiency variation and power output for a constant pressure and constant mass flow hybrid HAC/GT system. The efficiency when the water energy is included in the efficiency calculation is shown in Figure 5. This is the efficiency when the energy supplied by the water is included with the fuel energy.

91 90



Thermal Efficiency (%)

89 88 87 86 85
6000 8000


84 83 600 800 1000 1200 1400 1600 1800 2000 2200 2400
4000 2600

Turbine Inlet Temperature (TIT) (F)

Figure 4 Typical HAC/GT Performance Characteristics These data are loosely based on the use of a Solar Turbines T 3000 R a 2.8-MW recuperated and now obsolescent engine (see Figure 6). With the compressor removed the maximum power production available is around 8.6-MW. The maximum power output is limited usually by the turbine materials of construction and whether it is cooled or not. In addition to this limit there

Power Output (kW)

is also a limit on the recuperator inlet temperature (turbine exhaust) which is usually around 1200 F for stainless steel systems. Smaller gas turbines will generally have lower thermal efficiencies because of their lower component efficiency and effectiveness levels. The larger the gas turbine the easier it is to of achieve high component efficiencies.
56 13000

Energy Provided By Water Included in Efficiency

54 12000

Thermal Efficiency (%)

52 11000 50 10000 48

9000 46

44 1400






8000 2600

Turbine Inlet Temperature (F)

Figure 5 Water Energy Included In Efficiency

Figure 6 Centaur T 3000 R (Compressor Removed)

Power Output (kW)

Due to the extensive dissolution of air (oxygen) at pressure into the water the HAC is also fundamentally a high-rate, aerobic, fermentation reactor (HAFR). The high levels of oxygen present in the water accelerate the growth of microorganisms. In particular the growth rate of organisms, typical of those found in activated sludge (water treatment), are greatly accelerated. The oxygen levels are usually sufficiently high that they can significantly reduce both the biological oxygen demand (BOD) and the chemical oxygen demand (COD). This provides another niche market to act as a secondary water treatment in sewage plants and to treat effluents from industries based on forestry and agricultural activities.

In Summary
1. Got Silt Get HAC 2. The hydraulic air compressor has no moving parts and silt and sand can pass through the system without causing damage. Because of this, the system can be used to de-silt existing dams that are no longer operable. Site and river remediation with power production is thus possible. 3. Very high fuel thermal efficiencies can be obtained by combining the HAC with the hotend section of a gas turbine. This in effect is an HAC combined with a fired turbo-expander. Typically the hybrid will include recuperation in some form. Such systems significantly reduce the emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when compared to conventional approaches to power generation. 4. The HAC system can, when fired, or with other (solar) thermal input produce between two and four times as much power as can be extracted from the water directly using conventional hydraulic turbine systems. Small dam sites can thus be expanded in size at minimal cost, providing rural areas with low cost electricity. 5. Because there is no need to use fuel energy in the air compression process much higher power levels can be obtained from a turbo-expander than can be extracted from a gas turbine with the same size turbine section. This reduces the cost per kilowatt for the rotating machinery when compared to a standard gas turbine. A lower cost per kilowatt makes energy more affordable. Indirectly, it also reduces gaseous pollutant emissions per unit energy input or output. 6. Oxygen in the compressed air goes into solution reducing the concentration in the air used for combustion. This can dramatically reduce NOx formation through reductions in the local flame temperatures. 7. Because a large amount of oxygen goes into solution (in the water) under pressure it can rapidly oxidize many organic contaminants present and thus reduce the chemical oxygen demand (COD). The oxygen can also enhance aerobic digestion thus reducing the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of the water leaving the system. 8. Combined cooling and electric power generation can be readily provided by HAC based systems. 9. Like many related systems it is easy to design a HAC that works badly but very difficult to design one that works well!

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