A supercritical steam generator is a type of boiler that operates at supercritical pressure, frequently used in the production of electric power.
In contrast to a subcritical boiler, a supercritical steam generator operates at pressures above the critical pressure — 3,200 psi in which bubbles can form. Instead, liquid water immediately becomes steam. Water passes below the critical point as it does work in a high pressure turbine and enters the generator’s condenser, resulting in slightly less fuel use and therefore less greenhouse gas production.
Earlier steam generators were designed for relatively low pressures of up to about 100 bar (10 MPa; 1,450 psi), corresponding to the state of the art in steam turbine development at the time. One of their distinguishing technical characteristics was the riveted water/steam separator drum. These drums were where the water filled tubes were terminated after having passed through the boiler furnace.
These header drums were intended to be partially filled with water and above the water there was a baffle filled space where the boiler’s steam and water vapour collected. The entrained water droplets were collected by the baffles and returned to the water pan. The mostly dry steam was piped out of the drum as the separated steam output of the boiler. These drums were often the source of boiler explosions, usually with catastrophic consequences.
However, this drum could be completely eliminated if the evaporation separation process was avoided altogether. This would happen if water entered the boiler at a pressure above the critical pressure (3,206 pounds per square inch, 22.10 MPa); was heated to a temperature above the critical temperature (706 °F, 374 °C) and then expanded (through a simple nozzle) to dry steam at some lower subcritical pressure. This could be obtained at a throttle valve located downstream of the evaporator section of the boiler.
As development of Benson technology continued, boiler design soon moved away from the original concept introduced by Mark Benson. In 1929, a test boiler that had been built in 1927 began operating in the thermal power plant at Gartenfeld in Berlin for the first time in subcritical mode with a fully open throttle valve. The second Benson boiler began operation in 1930 without a pressurizing valve at pressures between 40 and 180 bar (4 and 18 MPa; 580 and 2,611 psi) at the Berlin cable factory. This application represented the birth of the modern variable-pressure Benson boiler. After that development, the original patent was no longer used. The “Benson boiler” name, however, was retained.
Two current innovations have a good chance of winning acceptance in the competitive market for once-through steam generators:
- A new type of heat-recovery steam generator based on the Benson boiler, which has operated successfully at the Cottam combined-cycle power plant in the central part of England,
- The vertical tubing in the combustion chamber walls of coal-fired steam generators which combines the operating advantages of the Benson system with the design advantages of the drum-type boiler. Construction of a first reference plant, the Yaomeng power plant in China, commenced in 2001.