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Is there such thing as a steam panel for generating energy?

  1. Sep 20, 2009 #1
    Such thing as a "steam panel" for generating energy?


    Sort of a hypothetical question here, though I suspect there's some real-world technology like this.

    I was wondering about a possible way to generate energy using a panel that would catch steam, and use the temperature difference between the steam side and the back side to generate power, but not mechanically like a turbine. More like a solar panel.

    It doesn't need to be more efficient than the conventional means of turning steam into power. This is more of a hypothetical scenario. (I'm making science fiction concept art of artificial and/or natural "plants" that live on a geothermally active area and capture energy from steamy hot springs. The idea doesn't have to "work" in real life, but I want it to be grounded in reality.)

    I have googled "thermovoltaic", but it seems as though that term means "heat generated as a result of electricity" instead of the other way around.

    Here's some stuff I've found so far, but none of them are really quite what I'm looking for. I was hoping for something that would work more like a solar panel, only with a different kind of cell. It also seems as though almost everything I've found has to do with using the sun as the thermo source as part of a solar panel...

    http://www.freepatentsonline.com/5959239.html (This sounds right, but I wish there was a diagram or something. A little too technical for me.)
    http://www.livescience.com/technology/070216_heat_power.html (Probably the closest thing I've found to what I want...)
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070603225026.htm (interesting, but not what I'm looking for.)
    http://www.ferrotec.com/products/thermal/powerGen/ (Doesn't describe the process, but at least I know that this type of thing exists and is used in industry.)

    So, anyway, if you have any link to something I'm missing, or know of some key vocabulary term that I could use in my searches, or can explain the process more concisely than in some of those links, I'd appreciate it!
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 20, 2009 #2
    Re: Such thing as a "steam panel" for generating energy?

    Thermoelectronic devices (look for TEDs) do exist, but are mostly used in reverse. Pump enough electricity through a TED, and you can have a small refridgerator with no moving parts. (Or overclock the CPU in your computer. ;-)

    However, there is a serious problem with your concept. You need a temperature difference to do work. There can be a huge amount of energy deposited by the condensation, but you need the condensation plate to stay "cold" for the condensation to happen.

    A much better and more biologically oriented method would be to use the difference in salinity between the fluids in the plant and the condensed water. The plant could use the heat transfer during the condensation process to evaporate water from the sap (on the other side of the leaves). Now the plants can store the distilled water as a way of storing energy.
  4. Sep 21, 2009 #3
    Re: Is there such thing as a "steam panel" for generating energy?

    Awesome reply, thanks so much!

    You helped me remember that indeed much of the energy put in and taken out of fluid is in changing its state, not it's temperature. Hadn't really taken into account the state change, as you pointed out.

    Still something I'm unclear on about your biological model, though. What do you mean by storing distilled water as energy? Do you mean the heat energy in the distilled water, using that to make sugars and such?
  5. Sep 21, 2009 #4
    Re: Is there such thing as a "steam panel" for generating energy?

    Energy is released when you mix water of different salinity. This occurs where rivers (relatively salt free) flow into oceans. There have been several proposals to use this to generate electricity. Take a membrane or three that allow water to pass but not salt. Put salt water on one side, and fresh water on the other. The fresh water will be drawn through the membrane and the water level on the saline side will be higher. (For electricity, use the difference in water levels to drive a turbine.) A biological system though can use the salinity difference directly. It is (part of) how trees draw ground water and move it up to the leaves.
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