| Ever have a small child threaten to hold his breath until he passes out and he actually managed to do it? It’s not that unusual. And if his body were prevented from acting in self preservation, that is, taking in breaths while he was unconscious, leading to his eventual awakening, he would die. While the human body can survive about a month without eating and three days without water, under normal conditions it can survive only a matter of minutes without breathing. Power plants, too, require oxygen to function, and this process is called combustion.
Human lungs, along with the diaphragm which works to expand and release the lung cavities, enable our bodies to breathe in air, then expel the waste product, carbon dioxide. Oxygen is needed to metabolize, that is burn, our food, enabling the food cells’ energy to be absorbed by our bodies and converted into energy to live. Like us, coal power plants need to breathe in oxygen in order to convert coal’s latent energy into a usable form.
Previously we learned how coal is fed to a coal mill where it is pulverized into a fine powder. This powder is then sucked out of the mill by the exhauster and blown through a serpentine path of pipes leading to the burners on the furnace. The burners will then act upon the coal, combining it with the oxygen in our atmosphere to create a chemical reaction capable of releasing coal’s energy in the form of heat. All this activity looks to a bystander like a massive, sustained fire in the furnace. See Figure l.
Figure 1 – Coal Power Plant Combustion
The boiler is contained within the furnace and is situated so it is exposed to fire from the combustion process. Heat energy from the fire transfers into the water in the boiler, much like when you boil water for tea in a kettle on your stovetop. If you’ve ever boiled water, you know that once it gets hot enough it will turn into steam, and the same for our furnace boiler. The steam emitting from the boiler will cause a turbine-generator to spin, and the end result will be electricity for our use. In the simple diagram of Figure 1, waste products from the combustion process, like carbon dioxide, go up the smoke stack and are released into the atmosphere. Incidentally, this is the same type of carbon dioxide that we exhale from our bodies when we breathe.
Please keep in mind that Figure 1 is a very simplified diagram. In reality waste products leaving the furnace go through various pollution control devices where most pollutants are removed before they reach the smoke stack. These details, and many more, are the type of information that would be covered during my training seminar, Coal Power Plant Fundamentals.
Next time we’ll learn how the heat energy in steam is converted into mechanical energy capable of spinning a turbine generator to make electricity.