Thermodynamic cycle consulting; including the analysis, design, production, and testing or organic Rankine Cycles and closed Brayton cycles; has been a Barber-Nichols core competency since 1966. BNI’s turbomachinery expertise (the heart of a thermodynamic power cycle) allowed it to successfully develop systems to convert geothermal, industrial waste, solar, and fossil fuel heat into useable power. Applications are extremely diverse, including electrical power generation, uninterruptible back-up power systems, air conditioning systems, and automotive turbo compounds. System sizes range from 3 kW to 6 MW.
Barber-Nichols’ thermodynamic cycle consulting experience is primarily related to the organic Rankine Cycle (ORC). BNI designed and produced its first ORC system for a total energy system gas-fired air conditioner. And during the 1970s Barber-Nichols developed an ORC automotive drive system. One notable project was BNI’s collaboration with Bill Lear, inventor of the Lear Jet, on a steam-powered engine for a city bus that was demonstrated in San Francisco. And hardware developed for the steam-powered bus was later used to set the land speed record for a steam-powered car at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The new record was set in 1989 with Bob Barber at the wheel.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Barber-Nichols produced numerous ORC systems for converting solar and geothermal energy to electrical power and air conditioning. Two of these plants are located in northern California near Susanville and they use relatively low temperature (115°C [240°F]) geothermal water to produce electricity that is sold to the local electrical utility. These systems are unattended and operate around the clock, seven days a week. The WinEagle plant produces 700 kW, went on-line in September of 1985, and has demonstrated 98% availability since that time. The Amedee power plant produces 1.5 MW.
Barber-Nichols has also put its thermodynamic cycle consulting expertise to work producing an experimental Brayton cycle gas turbine engine power system. And most recently, BNI produced a Closed Brayton Cycle (CBC) that uses an electric heater that simulates a nuclear reactor. The working fluid is an uncommon gas mixture and the expander is a modified commercially available microturbine. This is the largest, and one of only two, CBCs currently operating in the United States. Eventually, closed Brayton cycles like this will be used to generate electricity on extended duration space flights. This CBC designed and produced by Barber-Nichols is currently being used to establish computer simulation accuracy and to aid in the planning of such space flights. Additionally, CBCs are currently being considered by the U.S. Department of Energy for power conversion in Next Generation Nuclear Power (NGNP) plants.