Archive for March 7th, 2011

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.