Archive for March, 2011

Industrial Ventilation

Sunday, March 27th, 2011
     On a hot, sticky day, what price would you pay for a cool breeze?  Imagine for a moment that it’s 90 degrees in the shade and humidity is 85%.  There are few human beings that wouldn’t consider this uncomfortable weather, although I have some die hard neighbors who rarely close their windows during the summer to engage the air conditioning, a rather recent modern convenience.  My mom told me stories of how it was common in the 1940s for entire Chicago neighborhoods to head to Lake Michigan, spread a blanket, and sleep on the beach to keep cool on the hottest nights.  As for myself, I remember being really happy when Dad broke down and finally purchased a window air unit.  It was as big as a small refrigerator and took two men to lift.  It was loud and drew so much power it frequently “blew the fuse.”  It was so much nicer when central air conditioning came along a few years later and we could finally retire that old clunker.

      Ultimately, it’s ventilation that makes air conditioning work, the principle here being a continuous circulation of air, exchanging hot for cooled.  If you’ll remember, hot air gives up its heat to coils containing coolant, and the newly cooled air is released back into the room. 

     In addition to cooling, another major function of ventilation is to remove odors and refresh the air.  Everyone likes a fresh smelling home, but even more importantly, proper ventilation reduces the concentration of contaminants in the air, things which tend to make us sick, like mold.  That’s why many states’ building codes require whole house air ventilation systems to be installed in new homes. 

     In industrial settings ventilation performs the same functions, but it’s necessary for other reasons as well.  Industrial facilities often house processes that create airborne toxins and other contaminants.  These byproducts of manufacturing can be dangerous if allowed to collect unchecked within the confines of a building.  Air containing certain concentrations of contaminants, such as vapors emitted by paints and solvents, can ignite, resulting in fire or explosion.  For safety of both workers and equipment, fresh air must displace air contaminated with fumes and dust.

     There are three types of ventilation that can be found in industrial facilities.  These include indoor air quality ventilation, dilution ventilation, and local exhaust ventilation.  Indoor air quality ventilation provides freshly heated or cooled air to buildings as part of the normal heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, much like we have in our own homes.  Dilution ventilation gets its name from the fact that it dilutes contaminated air by displacement, the blowing in of clean air and exhausting of dirty.  The last type of ventilation, local exhaust ventilation, captures contaminated emissions at or near the source and exhausts them directly outside.  Depending on the type of industrial application one, two, or all three of these ventilation types may be employed to keep air quality safe.

     Next week we’ll discuss dilution ventilation in detail, followed by local exhaust ventilation, and we’ll gain a better understanding of how they are used to protect worker health and safeguard property.


Wire Size and Electric Current – Joule Heating

Sunday, March 20th, 2011
     Ever take a peek inside the toaster while you’re waiting for the toast to pop up?  If so, you would have noticed a bright orange glow.  That glow is produced when the toasting wires heat up, which in turn creates a nice crusty surface on your bread or waffle.  It’s the same phenomenon as when the filament inside an incandescent bulb glows.  The light and heat produced in both these cases are the result of the Joule, pronounced “jewel,” effect at work.

     To understand Joule heating, let’s first refresh our memories as to electrical current resistance.  We learned previously that wire is not a perfect conductor, and as such resistance to flow is encountered.  This resistance causes power to be lost along the length of wire, in accordance with this equation:

Power Loss = I2 × R

Where I is the electric current flowing through a wire, and R is the total electrical resistance of the wire.  The power loss is measured in units of Joules per second, otherwise known as watts, “watt” denoting a metric unit of power.  It is named after the famed Scottish mechanical engineer, James Watt, who is responsible for inventing the modern steam engine.  A Joule is a metric unit of heat energy, named after the English scientist James Prescott Joule.  He was a pioneer in the field of thermodynamics, a branch of physics concerned with the relationships between different forms of energy.

     Anyway, to see how the equation works, let’s look at an example.  Suppose we have 12 feet of 12 AWG copper wire.  We are using it to feed power to an appliance that draws 10 amperes of electric current.  Going to our handy engineering reference book, we find that the 12 AWG wire has an electrical resistance of 0.001588 ohms per foot, “ohm” being a unit of electrical resistance.  Plugging in the numbers, our equation for total electrical resistance becomes:

R = (0.001588 ohms per foot) × 12 feet = 0.01905 ohms

And we can now calculate power loss as follows:

Power = I2 × R = (10 amperes)2 × (0.01905 ohms) = 1.905 watts

     Instead of using a 12 AWG wire, let’s use a smaller diameter wire, say, 26 AWG.  Our engineering reference book says that 26 AWG wire has an electrical resistance of 0.0418 ohms per foot.  So let’s see how this changes the power loss:

R = (0.0418 ohms per foot) × 12 feet = 0.5016 ohms

Power = I2 × R = (10 amperes)2 × (0.5016 ohms) = 50.16 watts

     This explains why appliances like space heaters and window unit air conditioners have short, thick power cords.  They draw a lot of current when they operate, and a short power cord, precisely because it is short, poses less electrical resistance than a long cord.  A thicker cord also helps reduce resistance to power flow.  The result is a large amount of current flowing through a superhighway of wire, the wide berth reducing both the amount of power loss and the probability of dangerous Joule heating effect from taking place. 

     Our example shows that the electric current flowing through the 12 AWG wire loses 1.905 watts of power due to the inconsistencies within the wire, and this in turn causes the wire to heat up.  This is Joule heating at work.  Joule heating of 50.16 watts in the thinner 26 AWG wire can lead to serious trouble.

     When using a power cord, heat moves from the copper wire within it, whose job it is to conduct electricity, and beyond, on to the electrical insulation that surrounds it.  There the heat is not trapped, but escapes into the environment surrounding the cord.  If the wire has low internal resistance and the amount of current flowing through it is within limits which are deemed to be acceptable, then Joule heating can be safely dissipated and the wire remains cool.  But if the current goes beyond the safe limit, as specified in the American Wire Gauge (AWG) table for that type of wire, then overheating can be the result.  The electrical insulation may start to melt and burn, and the local fire department may then become involved.

         That’s it for wire sizing and electric current.  Next time we’ll slip back into the mechanical world and explore a new topic: the principles of ventilation.


Wire Size and Electric Current

Sunday, March 13th, 2011
     Whether or not you live or work in a city, you are probably aware of rush hour traffic and how frustrating it can be.  As a matter of fact, this traffic is the number one reason many choose to live within cities providing public transportation.  Instead of watching the cars pile up in front of you, you can be checking your email or reading the paper.  And no matter where you live, you’ve probably encountered a narrow one-lane road at some time.  If this road were to be spotted with traffic lights and double parked cars, the resulting frustration would reach a new high, one which has you craving the freedom of a crowded three-lane expressway.  At least there’s the possibility of movement there.

      Generally, the wider the road and the fewer the impediments, the better traffic will flow.  The problems presented by vehicular traffic are analogous to those present in electrical wires.  For both, obstructions are impediments to flow.  You see, the thicker the metal is in a wire, the more electrical current it can carry.  But before we explore why, let’s see how electric wires are classified.

     If you’ve ever spent any time hanging around a hardware store looking at the goodies, you’ve probably come across wire gauge numbers, used to categorize wire diameter.  American Wire Gauge (AWG) is a standardized wire gauge system, used in North American industry since the latter half of the 19th Century.  Handy as it is, the AWG gauge numbering system seems to go against logic, because as a wire’s diameter increases, its gauge number decreases.  For example, a wire gauge number of 8 AWG has a diameter of 0.125 inches, while a gauge number of 12 AWG has a diameter of 0.081 inches.  To make things easier on those who need to know this type of information, wire diameter is tabulated for each AWG gauge number and readily available in engineering reference books.

      So what does this have to do with electric current?  To begin with, the larger the AWG number, the less current it can safely carry.  If we turn to an engineering reference book, and look up information relating to an 8 AWG insulated copper wire, we find that it can safely carry an electrical current of 50 amperes, while a 12 AWG insulated copper wire can safely carry only 25 amperes.  This information allows us to make important and relevant design decisions regarding a myriad of things, from electrical wiring in electronic devices, to appliances, automobiles, and buildings. 

      So, why are bigger wires able to carry more current?  Well, as you’ve heard me say before, no wire is a perfect conductor of electricity, but some metals, take copper for instance, are better conductors than others, say steel.  But even the best conductors are inherently full of impurities and imperfections that resist the flow of electricity.  This electrical resistance acts much like traffic lights and double parked cars that impede the flow of traffic.  The larger the diameter of the wire, the less electrical resistance is present.  The logic here is simple.  Wire that is larger allows more paths for electrical current to flow around impurities and imperfections.

      The congestion present in rush hour traffic results in travel delays and hot tempers, and heat is also present in electric wires that face resistance to electricity flow.  If the resistance to electric current flow is high enough, it can cause overheating.  Road rage within the wires is a possibility, and if the wires get hot enough, electrical insulation can melt and burn, creating a fire.  Known as the “Joule heating” effect, this phenomenon is responsible for its share of building fires.

      We’ll learn more about Joule heating and how wires are sized to keep electrical current flow within safe limits next week.  Until then, try to keep out of traffic.



Coal Power Plant Fundamentals – The Generator

Monday, March 7th, 2011
     When I was a kid I remember how cool it was to have a headlight on my bike.  Unlike the headlights that the other kids had, mine was not powered with flashlight batteries.  The power came from a little gadget with a small wheel that rode on the front tire.  As I pedaled along, the tire’s spinning caused the small wheel to spin, and voila, the headlight bulb came to life.  Little did I know that this gadget was a simple form of electrical generator, and of course I was oblivious to the fact that a similar device, albeit on a much larger scale, was being used at a nearby power plant to send electricity to my home.

     Over the last few weeks we learned how a coal fired power plant transforms chemical energy stored in coal into heat energy and then into mechanical energy which enables a steam turbine shaft to spin.  We’ll now turn our attention to the electrical generator.  It’s responsible for performing the last step in the energy conversion process, that is, it converts mechanical energy from the steam turbine into the desired end product, electrical energy for our use.  It represents the culmination in energy’s journey through the power plant, the process by which energy contained in a lump of coal is transformed into electricity.   

    To show how this final energy conversion process works, let’s look at Figure 1, a simplified illustration of an electrical generator.

Figure 1 – A Basic Electrical Generator

     You’ll note that the generator in our illustration has a shaft with a loop of wire attached to it.  When the shaft spins, so does the loop.  The shaft and wire loop are placed between the north (N) and south (S) poles of a horseshoe magnet.  It’s a permanent magnet, so it always has invisible lines of magnetic flux traveling between its two poles.  These magnetic lines of flux are the same type as the ones created by kids’ magnets, when they play with watching paperclips jump up to meet the magnet.  The properties of magnets are not completely understood, even to adults who work with them every day.  And what could be more mysterious than the fact that as the shaft and wire loop spin through the lines of magnetic flux in the generator, an electric current is produced in the wire loop.

     Now, this current that’s flowing through the spinning wire loop is of no use if we can’t channel it out of the generator.   The wire loop is spinning vigorously, so you can’t directly connect the ends of the loop to stationary wires.  A special treatment is required.  Each end of the loop is connected to a slip ring.  A part called a “brush” presses against each slip ring to make electrical contact.  The electrical current then flows from the loop through the spinning slip rings, through the brushes, and into the stationary wires.   So, if, for example, a light bulb is connected to the other end of the stationary wires, this completes an electric circuit through which current can flow.  The light bulb will glow as long as the generator shaft keeps spinning and the wire loop keeps passing through the magnetic lines of flux from the magnet.

     So we see that the key to the whole energy conversion process is to have movement between magnetic lines of flux and a loop of wire.  As long as this movement occurs, the electricity will flow.  This basic principle is the same in a coal fired power plant, but the electrical generator is far more complicated in construction and operation than shown here.  My Coal Power Plant Fundamentals seminar goes into far greater detail on this and other aspects of electricity generation, but what I have shared with you above will give you a basic understanding of how they operate.

     That concludes our journal with coal through the power plant.  This series of blogs has, you will remember, presented a simplified version of the complex material presented in my teaching seminars.  Next week we’ll branch off, taking a look at why electrical wires come in different thicknesses.