"Don't Do Different Things - Do Things Differently"

May 10, 2011


A Rankine cycle describes a model of steam-operated heat engine most commonly found in power generation plants. Common heat sources for power plants using the Rankine cycle are the combustion of coal, natural gas and oil, and nuclear fission.
The Rankine cycle is sometimes referred to as a practical Carnot cycle because, when an efficient turbine is used, the TS diagram begins to resemble the Carnot cycle. The main difference is that heat addition (in the boiler) and rejection (in the condenser) are isobaric in the Rankine cycle and isothermal in the theoretical Carnot cycle. A pump is used to pressurize the working fluid received from the condenser as a liquid instead of as a gas. All of the energy in pumping the working fluid through the complete cycle is lost, as is all of the energy of vaporization of the working fluid, in the boiler. This energy is lost to the cycle in that first, no condensation takes place in the turbine; all of the vaporization energy is rejected from the cycle through the condenser. But pumping the working fluid through the cycle as a liquid requires a very small fraction of the energy needed to transport it as compared to compressing the working fluid as a gas in a compressor (as in the Carnot cycle).
The efficiency of a Rankine cycle is usually limited by the working fluid. Without the pressure reaching super critical levels for the working fluid, the temperature range the cycle can operate over is quite small: turbine entry temperatures are typically 565°C (the creep limit of stainless steel) and condenser temperatures are around 30°C. This gives a theoretical Carnot efficiency of about 63% compared with an actual efficiency of 42% for a modern coal-fired power station. This low turbine entry temperature (compared with a gas turbine) is why the Rankine cycle is often used as a bottoming cycle in combined-cycle gas turbine power stations.
The working fluid in a Rankine cycle follows a closed loop and is reused constantly. The water vapor with entrained droplets often seen billowing from power stations is generated by the cooling systems (not from the closed-loop Rankine power cycle) and represents the waste energy heat (pumping and vaporization) that could not be converted to useful work in the turbine. Note that cooling towers operate using the latent heat of vaporization of the cooling fluid. The white billowing clouds that form in cooling tower operation are the result of water droplets that are entrained in the cooling tower airflow; they are not, as commonly thought, steam. While many substances could be used in the Rankine cycle, water is usually the fluid of choice due to its favorable properties, such as nontoxic and un reactive chemistry, abundance, and low cost, as well as its thermodynamic properties.

There are four processes in the Rankine cycle. These states are identified by numbers (in brown) in the diagram below. 
Process 1-2: The working fluid is pumped from low to high pressure, as the fluid is a liquid at this stage the pump requires little input energy.  
Process 2-3: The high pressure liquid enters a boiler where it is heated at constant pressure by an external heat source to become a dry saturated vapor. The input energy required can be easily calculated using mollier diagram or h-s chart or enthalpy-entropy chart also known as steam tables.   
Process 3-4: The dry saturated vapor expands through a turbine, generating power. This decreases the temperature and pressure of the vapor, and some condensation may occur. The output in this process can be easily calculated using the Enthalpy-entropy chart or the steam tables.  
Process 4-1: The wet vapor then enters a condenser where it is condensed at a constant temperature to become a saturated liquid.

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