The applicability of organic Rankine cycle (ORC) technology to waste heat recovery (WHR) is currently experiencing growing interest and accelerated technological development. The utilization of low-to-medium grade thermal energy sources, especially in the presence of heat source intermittency in applications where the thermal source is characterized by highly variable thermodynamic conditions, requires a control strategy for off-design operation to achieve optimal ORC power-unit performance. This paper presents a validated comprehensive model for off-design analysis of an ORC power-unit, with R236fa as the working fluid, a gear pump, and a 1.5 kW sliding vane rotary expander (SVRE) for WHR from the exhaust gases of a light-duty internal combustion engine. Model validation is performed using data from an extensive experimental campaign on both the rotary equipment (pump, expander) and the remainder components of the plant, namely the heat recovery vapor generator (HRVH), condenser, reservoirs, and piping. Based on the validated computational platform, the benefits on the ORC plant net power output and efficiency of either a variable permeability expander or of sliding vane rotary pump optimization are assessed. The novelty introduced by this optimization strategy is that the evaluations are conducted by a numerical model, which reproduces the real features of the ORC plant. This approach ensures an analysis of the whole system both from a plant and cycle point of view, catching some real aspects that are otherwise undetectable. These optimization strategies are considered as a baseline ORC plant that suffers low expander efficiency (30%) and a large parasitic pumping power, with a backwork ratio (BWR) of up to 60%. It is found that the benefits on the expander power arising from a lower permeability combined with a lower energy demand by the pump (20% of BWR) for circulation of the working fluid allows a better recovery performance for the ORC plant with respect to the baseline case. Adopting the optimization strategies, the average efficiency and maximum generated power increase from 1.5% to 3.5% and from 400 to 1100 W, respectively. These performances are in accordance with the plant efficiencies found in the experimental works in the literature, which vary between 1.6% and 6.5% for similar applications. Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement regarding a proper design of rotary machines, which can be redesigned considering the indications resulting from the developed optimization analysis.
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