Failure Analysis for Molten Salt Thermal Energy Storage Tanks for In-Service CSP Plants

Julian Osorio, Mark Mehos, Luca Imponenti, Bruce Kelly, Hank Price, Jose Torres-Madronero, Alejandro Rivera-Alvarez, Cesar Nieto-Londono, Chen Ni, Zhenzhen Yu, William Hamilton, Janna Martinek

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


Thermal Energy Storage (TES) is a fundamental component in concentrating solar power (CSP) plants to increase the plant's dispatchability, capacity factor, while reducing the levelized cost of electricity. In central receivers CSP plants, nitrate molten salts have been used for several years for operation temperatures of up to 565 degrees C. Despite many efforts to advance nitrate salt to higher operation temperatures (even considering a replacement with molten chloride salts) to achieve higher energy conversion efficiencies, the 565 degrees C temperature is currently considered the state-of-the art. Although molten salt tanks have been broadly deployed in commercial CSP plants worldwide, several failures have been reported in these tanks after a few months or years of operation, causing significant economic loss and mistrust in CSP technologies. Most of these failures are associated with the infancy of the technology and multiple issues related to tank design, fabrication, commissioning, and aggressive operation. A technical standard dedicated to the design and fabrication of molten nitrate TES tanks does not exist today. Current in-service molten salt tanks have been generally designed based on the American Petroleum Institute's (API) 650 and ASME Section II standards. The API 650 code provides guidelines for dimensions and fabrication for oil storage tanks up to 260 degrees C. The ASME standard provides allowable stress values for various materials at a range of temperatures and conditions. Both standards seem to be limited for molten salt TES tanks where high temperatures, thermal cycling, and transient conditions are expected. In 2020, NREL released the Concentrating Solar Power Best Practices Study (NREL/TP-5500-75763) that summarized multiple issues in CSP plants, along with potential alternatives and recommendations to address those issues based on information collected from participants representing about 80% of operating CSP plants in the world. One of the recommendations from this study was the development of accurate and validated models to evaluate the plant's transient operation, capable of capturing the effect of short-term clouds and operator response, while being flexible in being adapted to various spatial and temporal resource data. The "Failure Analysis for Molten Salt Thermal Energy Tanks for In-Service CSP Plants" project was inspired on this recommendation and was focused on (1) the development and validation of a physics-based model for a representative, commercial-scale molten salt tank, (2) performing simulations to evaluate the behavior of the tank as a function of typical plant operation conditions, (3) understanding tank failures mechanisms, (4) determining the residual stress and distortion in the tank floor after welding fabrication and evaluating their impact in the stresses developed in the tank during operation, (5) assessing the impact of key operation parameters on the temperature and stress distribution, (6) conduct a preliminary evaluation of design features to reduce stress and improve tank's reliability, and (7) estimate the tank's service life based on the stress developed under diverse operation scenarios. From the analysis conducted in the project and presented in this report, it was found that maximum stresses surpassing the yield strength point of the stainless steel (SS) 347H are developed on the tank floor near the perimeter. These large stresses are strongly influenced by the initial residual stresses and distortion of the tank floor after welding fabrication. During operation, large stresses are developed in the tank floor at high operation temperatures with large salt inventory levels during transient operation. High stresses are also related to elevated temperature gradients in the tank floor that could be attributed to insufficient mixing within the salt inflow and the salt inventory. Based on the analysis, creep is the predominant failure mechanism. However, the large stress levels could favor the plastic deformation into buckles, and crack formation due to stress relaxation cracking during cycle operation. A lifetime below 3 years was estimated for the typical plant operation conditions and a specific initial residual stress and deformation distribution of the tank floor. The estimated life agrees with the service time to failure reported in several commercial molten salt tanks. Desing and operation guidelines can be extracted from the analysis presented in this report, which could be adopted by tank manufacturers and CSP operators to advance toward an ultimate solution for tank failures by reducing residual and operational stresses to achieve a tank service life of more than 30 years. Addressing failures in molten salt TES tanks is fundamental for the CSP industry's survivability, but it is also important for other industrial and power generation applications using this technology, including nuclear and concentrating solar thermal.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages128
StatePublished - 2024

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-5700-89036


  • concentrating solar power
  • finite element modeling
  • lifetime evaluation
  • molten salt tank
  • stress distribution
  • tank failure
  • tank floor fabrication
  • tank reliability
  • thermal energy storage
  • thermal gradients


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