Chemical Compatibility of Hollow Ceramic Cenospheres as Thermal Insulation for High-Temperature Thermal Energy Storage Applications with Molten Nitrate Salt

Youyang Zhao, Emma Wagstaff, Samuel Gage, Deanna Payne, Craig Turchi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus Citations


An effective insulation material that is both thermally and chemically stable in molten salts could transform the design of molten-salt-based thermal energy storage (TES) tanks. Most current molten salt TES tanks hold the metallic tank structure in direct contact with hot salt inventory, a design which leads to thermal expansion of the tank and triggers stresses that can lead to thermomechanical failures. With an internal insulation to lower the temperature at the tank structure, the extent of thermal expansion can be reduced, thereby reducing expansion-induced stresses and allowing for consideration of lower-cost tank structure materials. Conventional insulation materials are either 1) too porous and allow molten salts to permeate into the matrix, which significantly increases the thermal conductivity or 2) too dense and have a thermal conductivity that cannot provide sufficient thermal insulation. This paper presents an alternative thermal insulation concept using cenospheres which have an alumino-silicate structure. The cost analysis suggests that the low-density cenospheres can be one of the cheapest materials to provide cost-effective thermal insulation. The chemical compatibility of cenospheres is investigated in molten 60 wt% NaNO3/40 wt% KNO3 salt which is close to industrial-grade Solar Salt. This paper shows that diffusion of the sodium and potassium cations from the salt into the cenospheres occurs based on weight analysis, energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS), X-ray diffraction (XRD) and Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. The cation diffusion breaks the bridging oxygen bonds and causes volume expansion of the microstructure which is responsible for the failure of the cenosphere particles. The chemical composition of the cenospheres is found to affect their compatibility with molten nitrate salt. A cenosphere product with low iron content showed the best compatibility with an average survival rate of 77.9% ± 9.8% after 7 days of immersion in the molten nitrate salt. While even the low-iron cenospheres appear to require protection from direct molten salt contact, their slow degradation rate, closed-cell porosity, and low cost hold potential for effective use as internal tank insulation.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numberArticle No. 111597
Number of pages12
JournalSolar Energy Materials and Solar Cells
StatePublished - May 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5700-77753


  • Cenospheres
  • Chemical compatibility
  • Molten nitrate
  • Thermal energy storage
  • Thermal insulation


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