Producing Magnesium Using Solar Thermal Energy

Faculty Sponsor

Luke Venstrom




College of Engineering

Presentation Type

Poster Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 5-2-2015


The solar energy research team at VU is developing a novel process for producing Magnesium (Mg) that is less energy intensive, less polluting, and cost competitive with commercially deployed processes. To reduce the energy intensity and CO2 emissions associated with Mg production, the VU process leverages the high-temperatures attainable with concentrated solar energy from the solar furnace in the James. S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility in order to substitute solar thermal energy for electric energy.

A major challenge of the research effort is to develop an interface that allows the integration of the solar thermal energy into the electrolytic cell where the Mg is produced. The heat transfer from the outside of the cell into its hot interior containing a molten salt electrolyte near 1000°C must be fast enough to prevent overheating of cell components. In this study, our aim was to measure the rate of heat transfer into the cell which occurs via natural convection. Experiments are necessary because of the unique geometry of the internal elements of the electrolytic cells that precludes the application of existing empirical correlations for natural convection heat transfer.

A direct measurement of the heat transfer in the molten salt electrolyte during MgO electrolysis, while preferred, presents substantial experimental challenges due to the corrosiveness of the molten salts, the solid-to-liquid phase change upon heating, operating temperatures near 1200 K, and convoluting effects from electric currents. In an effort to increase the accuracy of the heat transfer measurement in the face of these challenges, we developed a low-temperature experimental model based on non-corrosive fluids. Lower temperatures allowed the application of readily available copper-constantan thermocouples and electric surface-mounted heaters capable of supplying heat fluxes at accurate levels. Our model allowed for the measurement of Nusselt numbers—which provide an indication of the rate of heat transfer—over a range of Rayleigh numbers from 107 to 7×108 and Prandtl numbers from 2 to 6200 that encompass the expected operating range of the high-temperature motel salt filled electrolytic cell. The heat transfer results are collapsed into a single correlation equation that predicts the Nusselt number in the electrolytic within 16%. Application of the model suggests that for the heat fluxes required in the electrolytic cell, the heat transfer will lead to a 40°C temperature difference between the outside and inside of the cell, well below levels for which overheating becomes a concern.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

Todd Vervynckt is a senior mechanical engineering major that has been doing research for three semesters with the James. S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research team and one semester of solar reactor design. His research included building a 10 kilowatt solar concentrator that allows the solar facility to run experiments. In addition, he drew up the initial designs for electrolytic cell prototype.

Jacob Yager is a sophomore mechanical engineering major that has been doing research with the James. S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research team for one semester. His research has included designing a temperature cooling lid for the electrolytic cell.

Abstract.docx (15 kB)

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