Solar dish/engine system

Solar dish/engine systems convert the thermal energy in solar radiation to mechanical energy and then to electrical energy in much the same way that conventional power plants convert thermal energy from combustion of a fossil fuel to electricity. Dish/engine systems use a mirror array to reflect and concentrate incoming direct normal insolation to a receiver, in order to achieve the temperatures required to efficiently convert heat to work. This requires that the dish track the sun in two axes. The concentrated solar radiation is absorbed by the receiver and transferred to an engine.

A solar dish/Stirling engine energy system.  Source: Sandia Labs.A solar dish/Stirling engine energy system. Source: Sandia Labs.

Dish/engine systems are characterized by high efficiency, modularity, autonomous operation, and an inherent hybrid capability (the ability to operate on either solar energy or a fossil fuel, or both). Of all solar technologies, dish/engine systems have demonstrated the highest solar-to-electric conversion efficiency. The modularity of dish/engine systems allows them to be deployed individually for remote applications, or grouped together for small-grid (village power) or end-of-line utility applications. Dish/engine systems can also be hybridized with a fossil fuel to provide dispatchable power. This technology is in the engineering development stage and technical challenges remain concerning the solar components and the commercial availability of a solarizable engine.

Despite these attributes, electricity from solar dish/engine systems is still considerably more expensive than that from conventional power sources for large-scale grid power. Further cost reductions from technological improvements and increased deployment are needed before dish/engine systems become commercially viable on a large scale.


Dish/engine systems utilize concentrating solar collectors that track the sun in two axes. A reflective surface, metalized glass or plastic, reflects incident solar radiation to a small region called the focus. The size of the solar concentrator for dish/engine systems is determined by the engine. At a nominal maximum direct normal solar insolation of 1000 W/m2, a 25-kW dish/engine system’s concentrator has a diameter of approximately 10 meters.

Concentrators use a reflective surface of aluminum or silver, deposited on glass or plastic. The most durable reflective surfaces have been silver/glass mirrors, similar to decorative mirrors used in the home. Because dish concentrators have short focal lengths, relatively thin glass mirrors (thickness of approximately 1 mm) are required to accommodate the required curvatures. In addition, glass with a low-iron content is desirable to improve reflectance. Depending on the thickness and iron content, silvered solar mirrors have solar reflectance values in the range of 90 to 94%.

Dish/engine system schematic. The combination of four 25 kW units shown here is representative of a village power application.  Source: Sandia Labs.Dish/engine system schematic. The combination of four 25 kW units shown here is representative of a village power application. Source: Sandia Labs.

The ideal concentrator shape is a paraboloid of revolution. Some solar concentrators approximate this shape with multiple, spherically-shaped mirrors supported with a truss structure. An innovation in solar concentrator design is the use of stretched-membranes in which a thin reflective membrane is stretched across a rim or hoop. A second membrane is used to close off the space behind. A partial vacuum is drawn in this space, bringing the reflective membrane into an approximately spherical shape. The concentrator’s optical design and accuracy determine the concentration ratio. Concentration ratio, defined as the average solar flux through the receiver aperture divided by the ambient direct normal solar insolation, is typically over 2000. Intercept fractions, defined as the fraction of the reflected solar flux that passes through the receiver aperture, are usually over 95%.


The receiver absorbs energy reflected by the concentrator and transfers it to the engine's working fluid. The absorbing surface is usually placed behind the focus of the concentrator to reduce the flux intensity incident on it. An aperture is placed at the focus to reduce radiation and convection heat losses. Each engine has its own interface issues. Stirling engine receivers must efficiently transfer concentrated solar energy to a high-pressure oscillating gas, usually helium or hydrogen. In Brayton receivers the flow is steady, but at relatively low pressures.

There are two general types of Stirling receivers, direct-illumination receivers (DIR) and indirect receivers which use an intermediate heat-transfer fluid. Directly-illuminated Stirling receivers adapt the heater tubes of the Stirling engine to absorb the concentrated solar flux. Because of the high heat transfer capability of high-velocity, high-pressure helium or hydrogen, direct-illumination receivers are capable of absorbing high levels of solar flux (approximately 75 W/cm2). However, balancing the temperatures and heat addition between the cylinders of a multiple cylinder Stirling engine is an integration issue.

Liquid-metal, heat-pipe solar receivers help solve this issue. In a heat-pipe receiver, liquid sodium metal is vaporized on the absorber surface of the receiver and condensed on the Stirling engine's heater tubes. This results in a uniform temperature on the heater tubes, thereby enabling a higher engine working temperature for a given material, and therefore higher engine efficiency. Longer-life receivers and engine heater heads are also theoretically possible by the use of a heat-pipe. The heat-pipe receiver isothermally transfers heat by evaporation of sodium on the receiver/absorber and condensing it on the heater tubes of the engine. The sodium is passively returned to the absorber by gravity and distributed over the absorber by capillary forces in a wick. Heat-pipe receiver technology has demonstrated significant performance enhancements to an already efficient dish/Stirling power conversion module. Stirling receivers are typically about 90% efficient in transferring energy delivered by the concentrator to the engine.

Solar receivers for dish/Brayton systems are less developed. In addition, the heat transfer coefficients of relatively low pressure air along with the need to minimize pressure drops in the receiver make receiver design a challenge. The most successful Brayton receivers have used "volumetric absorption" in which the concentrated solar radiation passes through a fused silica "quartz" window and is absorbed by a porous matrix. This approach provides significantly greater heat transfer area than conventional heat exchangers that utilize conduction through a wall. Volumetric Brayton receivers using honeycombs and reticulated open-cell ceramic foam structures that have been successfully demonstrated, but for only short term operation (tens of hours). Test time has been limited by the availability of a Brayton engine. Other designs involving conduction through a wall and the use of fins have also been considered. Brayton receiver efficiency is typically over 80%.


The engine in a dish/engine system converts heat to mechanical power in a manner similar to conventional engines, that is by compressing a working fluid when it is cold, heating the compressed working fluid, and then expanding it through a turbine or with a piston to produce work. The mechanical power is converted to electrical power by an electric generator or alternator. A number of thermodynamic cycles and working fluids have been considered for dish/engine systems. These include Rankine cycles, using water or an organic working fluid; Brayton, both open and closed cycles; and Stirling cycles. Other, more exotic thermodynamic cycles and variations on the above cycles have also been considered. The heat engines that are generally favored use the Stirling and open Brayton (gas turbine) cycles.

The use of conventional automotive Otto and Diesel engine cycles is not feasible because of the difficulties in integrating them with concentrated solar energy. Heat can also be supplied by a supplemental gas burner to allow operation during cloudy weather and at night. Electrical output in the current dish/engine prototypes is about 25 kW for dish/Stirling systems and about 30 kW for the Brayton systems under consideration. Smaller 5 to 10 kW dish/Stirling systems have also been demonstrated.

Stirling Cycle

Stirling cycle engines used in solar dish/Stirling systems are high-temperature, high-pressure externally heated engines that use a hydrogen or helium working gas. Working gas temperatures of over 700ºC (1292ºF) and as high as 20 MPa are used in modern high-performance Stirling engines. In the Stirling cycle, the working gas is alternately heated and cooled by constant-temperature and constant-volume processes. Stirling engines usually incorporate an efficiency-enhancing regenerator that captures heat during constant-volume cooling and replaces it when the gas is heated at constant volume.

There are a number of mechanical configurations that implement these constant-temperature and constant-volume processes. Most involve the use of pistons and cylinders. Some use a displacer (a piston that displaces the working gas without changing its volume) to shuttle the working gas back and forth from the hot region to the cold region of the engine. For most engine designs, power is extracted kinematically by a rotating crankshaft. An exception is the free-piston configuration, where the pistons are not constrained by crankshafts or other mechanisms. They bounce back and forth on springs and the power is extracted from the power piston by a linear alternator or pump. A number of excellent references are available that describe the principles of Stirling machines. The best of the Stirling engines achieve thermal-to-electric conversion efficiencies of about 40%.

Brayton Cycle

The Brayton engine, also called the jet engine, combustion turbine, or gas turbine, is an internal combustion engine which produces power by the controlled burning of fuel. In the Brayton engine, like in Otto and Diesel cycle engines, air is compressed, fuel is added, and the mixture is burned. In a dish/Brayton system, solar heat is used to replace (or supplement) the fuel. The resulting hot gas expands rapidly and is used to produce power. In the gas turbine, the burning is continuous and the expanding gas is used to turn a turbine and alternator. As in the Stirling engine, recuperation of waste heat is a key to achieving high efficiency. Therefore, waste heat exhausted from the turbine is used to preheat air from the compressor. The recuperated gas turbine engines that are candidates for solarization have pressure ratios of approximately 2.5, and turbine inlet temperatures of about 850ºC (1,562ºF). Predicted thermal-to-electric efficiencies of Brayton engines for dish/Brayton applications are over 30%.

Ancillary Equipment


The mechanical-to-electrical conversion device used in dish/engine systems depends on the engine and application. Induction generators are used on kinematic Stirling engines tied to an electric-utility grid. Induction generators synchronize with the grid and can provide single or three-phase power of either 230 or 460 volts. Induction generators are off-the-shelf items and convert mechanical power to electricity with an efficiency of about 94%. Alternators in which the output is conditioned by rectification (conversion to DC) and then inverted to produce AC power are sometimes employed to handle mismatches in speed between the engine output and the electrical grid. The high-speed output of a gas turbine, for example, is converted to very high frequency AC in a high-speed alternator, converted to DC by a rectifier, and then converted to 60 hertz single or three-phase power by an inverter. This approach can also have performance advantages for operation of the engine.

Cooling System

Heat engines need to transfer waste heat to the environment. Stirling engines use a radiator to exchange waste heat from the engine to the atmosphere. In open-cycle Brayton engines, most of the waste heat is rejected in the exhaust. Parasitic power required for operation of a Stirling cooling system fan and pump, concentrator drives, and controls is typically about 1 kW.


Autonomous operation is achieved by the use of microcomputer-based controls located on the dish to control dish tracking and engine operation. Some systems use a separate engine controller. For large installations, a central System Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) computer is used to provide supervisory control, monitoring, and data acquisition.


Dish/engine technology is the oldest of the solar technologies, dating back to the 1800s when a number of companies demonstrated solar powered steam-Rankine and Stirling-based systems. Modern technology was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by United Stirling AB, Advanco Corporation, McDonnell Douglas Aerospace Corporation (MDA), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and DOE. This technology used directly-illuminated, tubular solar receivers, the United Stirling 4-95 kinematic Stirling engine developed for automotive applications, and silver/glass mirror dishes.

The Advanco Vanguard system, a 25 kW nominal output module, recorded a record solar-to-electric conversion efficiency of 29.4% (net) using the United Stirling PCU. This efficiency is defined as the net electrical power delivered to the grid, taking into account the electrical power needed for parasitics, divided by the direct normal insolation incident on the mirrors. MDA subsequently attempted to commercialize a system using the United Stirling PCU and a dish of their own design. Eight prototype systems were produced by MDA before the program was canceled in 1986 and the rights to the hardware and technology sold to Southern California Edison (SCE). The cancellation of the dish/Stirling program was part of MDA’s decision to cancel all of their energy related activities, despite the excellent technical success of their dish/Stirling system. The MDA systems routinely converted sunlight incident on the concentrator’s mirrors to electricity with net efficiencies of about 30%.

Southern California Edison Company continued to test the MDA system on a daily basis from 1986 through 1988. During its last year of operation, it achieved an annual efficiency of about 12%, including system outages and all other effects such as mirror soiling. This is also a record for solar energy systems. Without outages, an annual efficiency of over 23% was determined to be achievable. In the early 1990s, Cummins Engine Company attempted to commercialize dish/Stirling systems based on free-piston Stirling engine technology. The Cummins development efforts were supported by SunLab through two 50/50 cost shared contracts. (SunLab is a “virtual” laboratory composed of the solar thermal programs at Sandia National Laboratories and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.) The Dish/Stirling Joint Venture Program (DSJVP) was started in 1991 and was intended to develop a 5 to 10 kW dish/Stirling system for remote power applications. The Utility Scale Joint Venture Program (USJVP) was started in late 1993 with the goal of developing a 25 kWe dish/engine system for utility applications. However, largely because of a corporate decision to focus on its core diesel-engine business, Cummins canceled their solar development in 1996. Technical difficulties with Cummins’ freepiston Stirling engines were never resolved.

Environmental Impacts

The environmental impacts of dish/engine systems are significantly less than fossil fuel power generation, particularly in terms of the emission of air pollutants, including greenhouse gases. Stirling engines are known for being quiet, relative to internal combustion gasoline and diesel engines, and even the highly recuperated Brayton engines are reported to be relatively quiet. The biggest source of noise from a dish/Stirling system is the cooling fan for the radiator. There has not been enough deployment of dish/engine systems to realistically assess visual impact. The systems can be high profile, extending as much as 15 meters above the ground. Dish/engine systems resemble satellite dishes which are generally accepted by the public.

Other than the potential for spilling small amounts of engine oil or coolant or gearbox grease, these systems produce no effluent when operating with solar energy. Even when operating with a fossil fuel, the steady flow combustion systems used in both Stirling and Brayton systems result in extremely low emission levels. This is, in fact, a requirement for the hybrid vehicle and cogeneration applications for which these engines are primarily being developed.


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