Archive for November 5th, 2013

Vacuum in a Power Plant Condenser

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

      Last time we discussed the key functions of the make-up valve in the power plant water-to-steam cycle.   Today we’re going to talk about a vacuum.   No, not the kind you use around the house, the kind that’s created by the condenser inside a power plant.

      As discussed previously, the condenser is a piece of equipment that turns turbine exhaust steam back into water.   The water that’s formed during this process is known as condensate, and its density is higher than that of the steam it shares space with inside the condenser.   That difference in density is what creates the vacuum inside the condenser vessel.   Put another way, the increase in density along with the condenser’s airtight design prevent air from rushing in from outside to occupy any of the space inside the condenser, a desirable condition from an efficiency standpoint.

      But to understand how all this works we’ll first have to gain an understanding of what is meant by density.   A textbook would define it as the mass of a substance divided by the amount of space that that substance occupies.    Let’s take steam and water for example.   One pound of steam at 212°F forms a vapor cloud that occupies 26.78 cubic feet of space.   If we condensed that pound of steam back into water at the same temperature, it would just about fit into a 16 ounce glass and occupy a mere 0.017 cubic feet.

Power plant condenser vacuum.

      The huge difference in their volumes is due to the fact that steam contains more than five times the heat energy that unheated water does.    That energy makes the molecules in a cloud of steam more active, causing them to collide against each other with great force, spread apart, and occupy a larger space.

      If you’re wondering what change in density has to do with vacuum in the condenser, allow me to offer an analogy.   Ever canned any produce, like tomatoes, in glass jars to over-winter?   Not likely, as this once common survival tactic has nearly become a lost art.   But the vacuum created inside the condenser is much like the vacuum created within a mason jar during canning.

      Inside the glass mason jar, a small space is intentionally left between the tomatoes and lid.   During the process of boiling, or heat sterilization, this space fills with steam.   Then during cooling the trapped steam condenses into water.   This condensation creates the vacuum that sucks down on the jar’s lid, giving it an airtight seal, a condition which won’t allow bacteria to grow on our canned foods.   You see, like us bacteria need oxygen to live, but thanks to the vacuum inside our cooked mason jar no air containing oxygen will remain inside to harbor it.

      Next time we’ll continue our discussion on vacuum to see how it’s used to increase a steam turbine’s efficiency.

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