Tag Archives: cooling

Industry Developments: Cooling Nuclear Power Plants

By Norman Quesnel, Senior Member of Marketing Staff
Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.

(This article will be featured in an upcoming issue of Qpedia Thermal e-Magazine, an online publication dedicated to the thermal management of electronics. To get the current issue or to look through the archives, visit http://www.qats.com/Qpedia-Thermal-eMagazine.)

Most man-made electricity in the U.S. is provided by thermoelectric power plants. In these large scale installations, water is boiled to steam to spin the plant’s turbines and to ultimately generate electricity. To provide the heat necessary to produce this steam, a power plant could burn coal, natural gas or oil. But, in fact, most plants don’t burn anything. Instead, they use a very hot, but carefully controlled core of nuclear material to provide the thermal energy for continuous steam.

Most large power plants use pressurized water reactors (PWRs) with nuclear fuel as their power source. There are different cooling requirements inside these plants and they are typically achieved with primary, secondary and tertiary thermal solutions. First, heat must be managed inside their reactor vessels where the radioactive material is housed. Then, in the steam generators, hot water from the reactor vessels is cooled by transferring its heat to a separated water source, converting it to steam. Lastly, after the steam moves past the turbines, it is condensed back to liquid water, which then returns to the steam generator. An illustration of a nuclear power plant with a pressurized water reactor is shown in Figure 1. [1]

Nuclear  Power Plant

Figure 1. Components of a Pressurized Water Reactor in a Nuclear Power Plant. [2]

Inside a PWR’s reactor core, the primary coolant, usually ordinary water, is heated by energy from atomic fission. Under high pressure to keep it from boiling, the heated water flows along a primary, closed-loop piping system into a steam generator. Here, the heat from the primary loop transfers into an isolated, lower-pressure secondary loop also containing water.

The water in the secondary loop enters the steam generator at a pressure and temperature slightly below that required to initiate boiling. Upon absorbing heat from the primary loop, it becomes saturated and slightly super-heated. The water changes phase to steam, which serves as the working fluid to push the turbine blades and generate electricity.

Finally, the steam is condensed back to water and re-enters the secondary loop. There are different ways to provide this tertiary level of cooling to cause this condensation. [3]

Fueling a Nuclear Reactor

A nuclear power plant’s reactor is most often fueled by U-235, a type of uranium that fissions easily. U-235 is a component of uranium hexafluoride fuel, which is made from mined or milled uranium oxide, called yellowcake. To make the uranium hexafluoride usable as a fuel, it is enriched to increase its U-235 content from 1 percent up to 3-5 percent. This is a low concentration and the enriched uranium is stable over a wide range of environmental conditions.

After the uranium hexafluoride is enriched, a fuel fabricator converts it into uranium dioxide powder and presses the powder into solid fuel pellets. The fabricator loads the ceramic pellets into long, pencil-thin rods made of a noncorrosive material, usually a zirconium alloy. These tubes, each about 4 meters long, are grouped by the hundreds into bundles that are called fuel assemblies. [4]

Figure 2. A Pressurized Water Reactor Includes Inlets and Outlets for Passing Water Coolant. [5]

Figure 2. A Pressurized Water Reactor Includes Inlets and Outlets for Passing Water Coolant. [5]

A single fuel rod assembly for a pressurized water reactor (PWR) is approximately 13 feet high and weighs about 1,450 pounds. [6]

Step 1. Cooling the Nuclear Core

During a nuclear fission chain reaction, fuel rods heat up to about 800°C. If they are left uncovered by water, they’ll reach temperatures well about 1,000°C and begin to oxidize. That oxidation will react with any water that remains in the vicinity, producing highly explosive hydrogen gas. So, fuel rods are kept submerged in demineralized water, which serves as the primary coolant. The water is kept in a pressurized containment vessel and reaches about 325°C. [7]

At the atomic level, continuous exothermic fission in the fuel rods releases heat into the water in the PWC’s reactor. Nuclear power plants manage this fission and its resulting heat with the use of control rods. The rate of fission can be controlled–even stopped–by inserting and removing the control rods in the reactor. The control rods are made with neutron-absorbing material such as cadmium, hafnium or boron. Their presence controls the rate of nuclear reaction by absorbing neutrons, which otherwise would contribute to the fission chain reaction.

Figure 3.  Control Rods Manage the Fission Rate Inside Nuclear Reactor Cores. [8]

Figure 3. Control Rods Manage the Fission Rate Inside Nuclear Reactor Cores. [8]

A single uranium fuel pellet the size of a fingertip contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas or 1,780 pounds of coal. This relatively clean energy property, along with its vast half-life (700 million years), makes U-235 a viable alternative to burning fossil fuels to turn power plant turbines. [6]

Control Rod Drive Mechanisms (CRDMs) lower, raise, and keep in position assemblies of control rods inside a nuclear reactor. The rods absorb free neutrons, limiting the number available to cause fission of nuclear fuel. [8]

Step 2: Heat Transfer in Steam Generators

In a PWC-style nuclear power plant, the primary coolant, carrying heat from the reactor core, flows through a looped system into and out of a steam generator. Inside the generator it transfers its heat to an isolated, secondary coolant, water, converting it to steam. This steam travels in a secondary loop to the turbines. The transfer of heat from the primary loop to the secondary loop is accomplished without mixing the two fluids to prevent the secondary coolant from becoming radioactive.

Figure 4. Illustration of a Steam Generator. [9]

Figure 4. Illustration of a Steam Generator. [9]

There are multiple generators in a nuclear power plant. Each can measure up to 70 feet in height and weigh as much as 800 tons. A generator has more than 10,000 tubes, adding up to hundreds of miles in total length. A steam generator’s tubes are in a U-shape formation and each tube is about 19mm in diameter. Coolant from the reactor enters the generator’s inlet nozzle and circulates through the U-tubes.

The secondary coolant flows upward by natural convection through the bundle absorbing heat from the tubes of primary coolant. As heat is transferred through the tube walls, the secondary coolant, water, is turned into steam that flows from the top of the generator.

The materials that make up the steam generators and tubes are specially made and specifically designed to withstand heat, thermal expansion, high pressure, corrosion and radiation. The tubes are an important barrier between the radioactive and non-radioactive sides of the plant. For this reason, the integrity of the tubing is essential in minimizing the leakage of water between the two sides. [9]

Figure 5.  Steam Generator Tubes Transfer Heat from the Primary to the Secondary Loop. [8]

Figure 5. Steam Generator Tubes Transfer Heat from the Primary to the Secondary Loop. [8]

Step Three: Condensing the Steam

Once the steam has passed through a turbine, it must be cooled back into water by a third process and returned to the steam generator to be heated once.

Figure 6. Simple Illustration of Recirculation Scheme for Power Plant Steam. [10]

Figure 6. Simple Illustration of Recirculation Scheme for Power Plant Steam. [10]

There are three main methods of cooling a power plant’s steam and residual hot water:

Once-through systems take water from nearby sources (rivers, lakes, oceans), circulate it through condensers, and discharge the now warmer water to the local source. Once-through systems were initially popular because of their simplicity, low cost, and the abundant supplies of cooling water. But these systems can cause disruptions to local ecosystems, mainly from the large water withdrawals.

Wet recirculating systems reuse cooling water in a second cycle rather than immediately discharging it back to the original water source. Typically, wet recirculating systems use cooling towers to expose water to ambient air. Some water evaporates, but the rest is sent back to the condenser in the power plant. Because wet-recirculating systems only withdraw water to replace what’s lost through evaporation, these systems have much lower water withdrawals than once-through systems. Before being fed into the steam generator, the condensed steam (referred to as feed water) is sometimes preheated in order to minimize thermal shock.

More recently, plants have started using a third type of steam cooling system called dry cooling. Instead of using water to lower cooling water temperature, these systems use air passed over the cooling water by one or more large fans. Running those fans can require a significant amount of electricity, which makes this system less suited for large plants that require a lot of steam such as those powered by coal or nuclear energy. [11]

Three Integrated Cooling Systems

The illustration below is a simplified look at the main cooling loops in the Davis-Besse nuclear power station in Ohio. It features a pressurized water reactor in which uranium fuel is in long metal fuel rods (1) leading down to the reactor core (2). The reactor core is inside the reactor vessel (3) which is filled with purified water. Control rods (4) on top of the reactor start and stop the chain reaction that produces heat. When the rods are withdrawn, the nuclear chain reaction occurs, producing heat.

Figure 7. The Three Main Cooling Loops in a Nuclear Power Plant. [12]

Figure 7. The Three Main Cooling Loops in a Nuclear Power Plant. [12]

The water inside the Davis-Bessie PWR is under pressure so it won’t boil as its temperature rises by passing through the nuclear core. The water then travels along tubes through the steam generator (5) and back to the reactor. This constitutes the primary loop (green). After it has passed through the steam generator, the water has cooled down. The average temperature in this cycle is maintained at 582°F.

When the primary coolant water passes through the steam generator, its heat is transferred to the secondary loop (blue). Heat is transferred without the water in the primary loop and secondary loop ever coming in contact with each other. The water in the secondary loop boils to steam in the steam generator. This steam flows to the turbine generator (6). It is here that the steam’s energy is made into electricity.

When the steam leaves the turbine, it comes in contact with pipes carrying cooling water. As the steam cools, it changes back into water. The third loop (yellow) contains the water that is cooled by the large cooling tower (7). [12]

Among all of the power plants in the US, just over half reuse their cooling water. The rest are either dry systems or hybrid systems which can switch between dry and some sort of wet cooling depending on the temperature and availability of water.

[1] Bright Hub Engineering, http://www.brighthubengineering.com/power-plants/2722-components-of-nuclear-power-plant-coolant/
[2, 3] http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-power-reactors/nuclear-power-reactors.aspx
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_reactor_core
[5] https://www.britannica.com/technology/nuclear-reactor/Coolant-system
[6] Nuclear Energy Institute, http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Fuel-Processes
[7] http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/01/f7/csp_review_meeting_042313_martin.pdf
[8] Vallourec, http://www.vallourec.com/NUCLEARPOWER/EN/products/nuclear-island/Pages/crdm.aspx
[9] http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs-wm/14150.pdf
[10] Union of Concerned Scientists, http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/energy-and-water-use/water-energy-electricity-cooling-power-plant.html#.V8i9Cs9ATct
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pressurized_water_reactor
[12] http://www.co.ottawa.oh.us/ottawacoema/davisbesse.html

Increased Performance from High Aspect Ratio Heat Sinks

High Aspect Ratio Heat Sinks from ATSA heat sink’s aspect ratio is basically the comparison of its fin height to the distance between its fins. In typical heat sinks the aspect ratio is between 3:1 and 5:1. A high aspect ratio heat sink has taller fins with a smaller distance between them for a ratio that can be 8:1 to 16:1 or greater.

Thus, a high aspect ratio heat sink provides greater density of fins in a given footprint than a more common sink, and/or stands taller than its conventional counterpart. The great benefit from a high aspect ratio heat sink is the increased amount of heat dissipating surfaces it provides due to its additional fins. Further, these heat sinks do not occupy any more length or width. The result is a more efficient heat sink with higher performance per gram in the same footprint.

Many common heat sinks are unable to serve the needs of high volume applications, due to the fact that their cooling capacity – measured in part by the aspect ratio – is simply not great enough. By nearly doubling a heat sink’s aspect ratio the cooling performance is optimized and heat issues resolved without the need for more complex solutions.

Because high aspect ratio heat sinks are manufactured in similar fashion as conventional heat sinks, their cost is not significantly higher. They can be extruded or bonded. Fins can be straight or folded. For omnidirectional purposes a high density of pins can be used as heat spreaders in place of fins.

High aspect ratio heat sinks are often ideal thermal solutions for workstation CPUs, high performance power supplies and converters, and high-end amplifiers.

Of critical importance when using high aspect ratio heat sinks is providing sufficient airflow to carry away the radiating heat. Passive cooling, e.g. conduction and radiation may be inadequate. Convective heat transfer removes essentially all of the energy from a heat sink under forced air cooling. Particularly with dense fin fields, an improperly directed fan may create stagnation points and high pressure loss. Thermal modeling is recommended when determining the needed active cooling resources.

The Perfect Holiday Gift for Any Engineer

Holiday Sale: 25% Off Qpedia Books

The holidays are a time for giving, but ATS provides the engineering community with educational services year round, offering short courses, tutorial programs and free monthly webinars. In addition, ATS publishes Qpedia Thermal eMagazine, the only monthly publication dedicated to the field of thermal management. Over 18,000 engineers subscribe to the magazine, looking to advance their professional careers, academic studies, or understanding of electronics cooling. Qpedia and coolingZONE are running a holiday sale, discounting Qpedia Books by 25%. The Qpedia Book Series is a must have for every engineer, providing detailed and technical explanations for real life challenges that arise in the professional environment of engineers. The promotion is only until December 31st, so don’t miss your chance to order these invaluable books at a discounted price.

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The New iFLOW-200 Tests and Measures the Thermal and Hydraulic Performance of Cold Plates

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) has released a new thermal test instrument, the iFLOW-200, which assesses the thermal and hydraulic characteristics of cold plates in electronics cooling. It can be used to simulate a wide range of conditions to optimize a cold plate’s performance before it is commercialized or prior to its use in an actual application.


The iFLOW-200 measures coolant temperatures from 0-70°C with the high accuracy of ± 1°C. Differential pressure of the coolant in the cold plate is measured up to 103,000 Pa (15 psi), with the precise accuracy of ± 1%. Distilled water is used as the reference coolant. For test comparisons, the systems coolingVIEW software can also calculate thermal resistance and pressure drop as a function of flow rate for selected liquids.


The instrument system includes a pair of K-type thermocouples for measuring temperature changes on the cold plate surface. Temperatures are monitored on the coolingVIEW interface.


The iFLOW-200 system features easy set up and operation to save time when evaluating different cold plate models. Designed for accuracy and convenience, the iFLOW-200 simply requires setting the starting and ending coolant flow rates, and choosing the dwell time, pumping power and other parameters. These are easily done on any PC using the systemd user-friendly application program.

The iFLOW-200 system features separate controller and hydraulics enclosures with USB connections. The hydraulic package includes a fluid level indicator, coolant inlets and outlets from/to the cold plate under test, ports for surface temperature thermocouples, and a fluid cooling system for its internal heat exchanger. The iFLOW-200 is also ideal for testing alternative liquids.


More information about the iFLOW-200 Cold Plate Characterization System can be found at http://www.qats.com/Products/Temperature-and-Velocity-Measurement/Instruments/iFLOW-200

PICMG AdvancedMC architecture gives COTS System Designers Flexible Board Options but Thermal Management Challenges Exist

PICMG AdvancedMC (Advanced Mezzanine Card) standard gives COTS system designers tremendous flexibility to create custom systems. Designers can choose from a rich ecosystem of standard AdvancedMC boards or use the standard to design their own even.

As these modular systems grow in power due to faster computing and network switching rates needs, the thermal management challenges involving these advanced mezzanine cards are becoming more difficult. The enclosed and small form factors of these systems, coupled with the high power consumption of many designs, call for increased attention to their cooling methods. This includes the right choice of air cooled heat sink, fans, fan trays and board placement within a system.

While the PMC (PCI Mezzanine Card) is rated for only 7.5W of power, and the PrPMC (Processor PCI Mezzanine Card) is rated to 12W, a single-slot wide AMC card is specified to a 30W thermal envelope. The connector itself is standardized to 60W per modular unit, in anticipation of lower resistance thermal techniques in the future. The possibility for high power within a small form factor is apparent for AMC modular systems.

ATS’s white paper on meeting the challenges of cooling AdvancedMC’s will equip you to best meet these thermal management challenges for system design success. You can get your copy at this link at qats.com, “AdvancedMCs: Thermal Problems and Cooling Limitations