When I was a kid I didn’t have video games or cable TV to help me occupy my time. Back then parents tended to be frugal, and the few games I had were cheap to buy and simple in operation, like the plastic toy windmill I’d play with for hours on end. All I had to do to make it spin was take a deep breath, pucker my lips together, fill my cheeks with breath, then blow hard into the windmill blades. Its spin was fascinating to watch. Little did I know that as an adult I would come to work with a much larger and complex version of it, in the form of a power plant’s steam turbine.
You see, when you trap breath within bulging cheeks and then squeeze your cheek muscles together, you actually create a pressurized environment. This air pressure buildup transfers energy from your mouth muscles into the trapped breath within your mouth, so that when you open your lips to release the breath through your puckered lips, the pressurized energy is converted into kinetic energy, a/k/a the energy of movement. The breath molecules flow at high speed from your lips to the toy windmill’s blades, and as they come into contact with the blades their energy is transferred to them, causing the blades to move. A similar process takes place in the coal power plant, where steam from a boiler takes the place of pressurized breath and a steam turbine takes the place of the toy windmill.
If you recall from my previous article, the heat energy released by burning coal is transferred to water in the boiler, turning it to steam. This steam leaves the boiler under great pressure, causing it to travel through pipe to the steam turbine, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – A Basic Steam Turbine and Generator In A Coal Fired Power Plant
At its most basic level the inside of a steam turbine looks much like our toy windmill, of course on a much larger scale, and it is very appropriately called a “wheel.” See Figure 2.
Figure 2 – A Very Basic Steam Turbine Wheel
The wheel is mounted on a shaft and has numerous blades. It makes use of the pressurized steam that has made its way to it from the boiler. This steam has ultimately passed through a nozzle in the turbine that is directed towards the blades on the wheel. This is the point at which heat energy in the steam is converted into kinetic energy. The steam shoots out of the nozzle at high speed, coming into contact with the blades and transferring energy to them, which causes the turbine shaft to spin. The turbine shaft is connected to a generator, so the generator spins as well. Finally, the spinning generator converts the mechanical energy from the turbine into electrical energy.
In actuality, most coal power plant steam turbines have more than one wheel and there are many nozzles. The blades are also more numerous and complex in shape in order to maximize the energy transfer from the steam to the wheels. My Coal Power Plant Fundamentals seminar goes into far greater detail on this and other aspects of steam turbines, but what I have shared with you above will give you a basic understanding of how they operate.
So to sum it all up, the steam turbine’s job is to convert the heat energy of steam into mechanical energy capable of spinning the electrical generator. Next time we’ll see how the generator works to complete the last step in the energy conversion process, that is, conversion of mechanical energy into electrical energy.
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