Posts Tagged ‘coal’

How A Power Plant Condenser Works, Part 3

Monday, October 14th, 2013

      We’ve been discussing various aspects of a power plant’s water-to-steam cycle, from machinery specifics to identifying inefficiencies, and today we’ll do more of the same by introducing the condenser hot well and discussing its importance as a key contributor to the conservation of energy, specifically heat energy.   Let’s start by returning our attention to the steam inside the condenser vessel.

      Last week we traced the path of the condenser’s tubes and learned that the cool water contained within them serve to regulate the steam’s temperature surrounding them so that temperatures don’t rise dangerously high.   To fully understand the important result of this dynamic we have to revisit the concept of latent heat energy explored in a previous article.   More specifically, how this energy factors into the transformation of water into steam and vice versa.

      Steam entering the condenser from the steam turbine contains latent heat energy that was added earlier in the water/steam cycle by the boiler.   This steam enters the condenser just above the boiling point of water, and it will give up all of its latent heat energy due to its attraction to the cool water inside the condenser tubes.   This initiates the process of condensation, and water droplets form on the exterior surfaces of the tubes.

Power Plant Condenser

      The water droplets fall like rain from the tube surfaces into the hot well situated at the bottom of the condenser.   This hot well is essentially a large basin that serves as a collection point for the condensed water, otherwise known as condensate.

      It’s important to collect the condensate in the hot well and not just empty it back into the lake, because condensate is water that has already undergone the process of purification.   It’s been made to pass through a water treatment plant prior to being put to use in the boiler, and that purified water took both time and energy to create.   The purified condensate also contains a lot of sensible heat energy which was added by the boiler to raise the water temperature to boiling point, as we learned in another previous article.   This heat energy was produced by the burning of expensive fuels, such as coal, oil, or natural gas.

      So it’s clear that the condensate collecting in the hot well has already had a lot of energy put into it, energy we don’t want to lose, and that’s why its an integral part of the water-to-steam setup.   It acts as a reservoir, and the drain in its bottom allows the condensate to flow from the condenser, then follow a path to the boiler, where it will be recycled and put to renewed use within the power plant.

      Next week we’ll follow that path to see how the condensate’s residual heat energy is put to good use.


Power Plant Inefficiency

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

      Last week we identified some inefficiencies in our water to steam power plant energy cycle.   The superheater addressed some of these concerns, but not others.   Our illustration discloses one of these wasteful areas to be coming from the turbine exhaust.   That’s energy laden steam being expelled into the surrounding atmosphere!   It’s the same heat energy that was produced in the boiler when water was transformed into steam.   It came from burning fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil, all expensive and precious natural resources.

Coal Power Plant Training

      In its present configuration the power plant will work, but because steam is being continually dispersed into the atmosphere, it must continually be replenished.   The key ingredient, water, must be drawn into the power plant from a nearby source, treated for contaminants, then fed into the boiler to make up for lost steam.   That wastes both water and energy, because the make-up pump, which draws water from the lake for treatment, (thus “making up” for spent water), is continuously operating, resulting in excessive wear and tear and increased operating costs.

      Fortunately, power plant engineers have devised methods to correct these inefficiencies.   They’ve come up with a clever means of recapturing exhaust steam, thus enabling it to recycle within the system.   Next week we’ll see how this is accomplished with a piece of equipment called a condenser.


Superheater Construction and Function

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

      Power plants produce electrical energy for consumers to use, whether at home or for business, that’s obvious enough, but did you know that in order to produce that electrical energy they must first be supplied with heat energy?   The heat energy that power plants crave comes from a fuel source, such as coal, oil, or natural gas, by way of a burning process.   Once the heat energy is released from the coal through burning, it’s transported into a steam turbine by way of superheated steam, which is supplied to it by a piece of equipment named, appropriately enough, a superheater.

      So what is a superheater and how does it function?   Take a look at the illustration below.

Electric Utility Power Plant Superheater

      The superheater looks like a W.   It’s actually a cascading array of bent steam pipe, situated above a source of open flames which are produced by the burning of a fuel source.   A photo of an actual superheater is shown below.

Power Plant Expert Witness

      So how many bends are in a superheater?   Enough to fill the needs of the particular power plant it is supplying energy to.   Since all power plants are designed differently, we’ll keep things in general terms.

      The many bends in the superheater’s pipes form a circuitous path for steam to flow as it follows a path from the boiler to the steam turbine.   The superheater’s unique construction gives the steam flowing through it maximum exposure to heat.   In other words, the bends increase the time it takes for the steam to flow through the superheater.   The more bends that are present, the longer the steam will be exposed to the flame’s heat energy, and the longer that exposure, the more heat energy that is absorbed by the steam.

      Superheating routinely results in temperatures in excess of 1000°F.   This superheated steam is laden with abundant heat energy which will keep the steam turbine spinning and the generator operating.   The net result is millions of watts of electrical power.

      As we learned in a previous blog, the superheater is designed to provide the turbine with sensible heat energy to prevent steam from completely desuperheating, which would result in dangerous condensation inside the turbine.

      The newly added superheater is a major improvement to a power plant’s water-to-steam cycle, but there’s still plenty of waste and inefficiency in the system, which we’ll discuss next week.


Heat Energy Within the Power Plant—The Power Behind the Turbines

Monday, July 29th, 2013

      Last time we discovered that the boiling point of water varies.   It’s dependent upon the amount of pressure exerted on its surface, which varies due to a variety of reasons, including where it is in relation to sea level.   Before we see what happens under higher than atmospheric pressures, such as exist in an electric utility power plant boiler, let’s cover some basics.

      In the power plant, water is heated in a boiler specifically to produce steam, unlike our tea kettle where the primary purpose is to produce hot water.   The steam produced is used to spin turbine generators, which in turn generate electricity, as I explained in a previous blog on steam turbines.

      Unlike a tea kettle, which is open to the atmosphere on your kitchen stove, the boiler in a power plant is an enclosed, reinforced steel vessel.   See illustration below.

coal power plant expert

      The reinforced steel boiler vessel is designed to withstand great internal pressure as temperatures rise within.   In addition to providing a safety feature, the enclosed space provides a sheltered environment for collecting steam so it can later be put to use spinning power generating turbines down the line.   In other words, surface water inside the boiler is closed off from the surrounding atmosphere, allowing its internal pressure to build for our specific purposes.

      As heat energy is added to water within the boiler, the water boils and steam bubbles break out from its surface, filling the empty space above the surface with pressurized steam.   This steam will try to expand here, but it can’t, because it’s being constrained by the reinforced steel vessel within which it is enclosed.   Instead, steam pressure builds up on the surface of the water inside the boiler until it is high enough to be released through an attached pipe which is connected to a nearby turbine.

      We’ll talk more about this pent-up energy and how it is put to use within the power plant in next week’s blog.


The Microwave Oven Becomes Reality

Sunday, July 31st, 2011
     The evolution of cooking methods has been interesting indeed, from the open fires of primitive man, who must have decided at some point that cooked meat tasted better than raw, on to wood fired stoves, fossil fuel-based cooking, whether coal, propane, or gas, and let’s not forget electric range tops.  Standing on its own in the modern kitchen is the microwave oven.  What will be next?  The space age food pill dispensing stations of the futuristic cartoon family, The Jetsons?

      We’ve been talking about resonant cavity magnetrons and the purpose they serve within a microwave radar system.  We also learned about Dr. Percy Spencer’s discovery and how microwave radar transmissions emanating from a magnetron can cook food, not to mention melt candy bars.

Figure 1- Microwaves Melt Candy Bars and Cook Food

     Although the technologies used in microwave radars and microwave ovens are similar, they do have important differences.  It would be both unsafe and impractical to install microwave radar systems into kitchens.  Radiation emitted from radar wave guide lacking proper containment would bounce aimlessly around the kitchen, posing a threat to human safety.  You see, microwaves don’t know the difference between our bodies and the food we wish to cook.  They’ll heat up human tissue just as readily as a bowl of chicken soup.  Another issue is that runaway microwaves lose much of their effectiveness through their aimless bouncing about, and much of it would not be directed to the food itself.  Dr. Spencer would learn how to corral that energy, making microwave cooking a commercial success.   

     The biggest problem for Dr. Spencer to overcome was containment of the microwaves.  They needed to be directed towards food in order to efficiently heat them.  His first microwave oven was a metal box containing an opening at the top into which a magnetron wave guide could be inserted.  This would then introduce microwaves into the box, and the metal construction of the box would safely contain them.  The safety issue had now been resolved because the waves couldn’t escape, they would simply bounce around inside the box and most of their energy would be transferred into any food placed inside.

     Dr. Spencer’s employer, the Raytheon Corporation, produced the first commercial microwave oven in 1954, and it was appropriately named the “Radarange.”  It was huge, almost six feet tall, and weighed in at about 750 pounds!  Hardly something that could fit into a home kitchen.  Despite its massive size, the Radarange wasn’t all that powerful and couldn’t compete against the compact countertop microwave ovens in use today.

     It wasn’t until 1967 that technology improved enough to give us the smaller, more efficient units affordable to consumers.  This improvement involved using a newly developed semiconductor device called a “diode” within the high voltage electric circuitry that powers the magnetron.  We’ll learn more about these technologies in our next post.

     Also in our next post, we’ll see how high voltage circuits can pose electrocution hazards in a way you‘d never expect.  I discussed one of these instances in my recent appearance on The Discovery Channel program, Curious and Unusual Deaths, soon to be aired.


Coal Power Plant Fundamentals – “Big Coal”

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

     We’ve been talking about coal fired power plants for some time now, and it’s always good to introduce third party information on subject matter in order to gain the most from the discussion.  What follows is an excerpt of an interesting book review on the subject of coal consumption which appeared in the New York Times:

There is perhaps no greater act of denial in modern life than sticking a plug into an electric outlet. No thinking person can eat a hamburger without knowing it was once a cow, or drink water from the tap without recognizing, at least dimly, that its journey began in some distant reservoir. Electricity is different. Fully sanitized of any hint of its origins, it pours out of the socket almost like magic.

In his new book, Jeff Goodell breaks the spell with a single number: 20. That’s how many pounds of coal each person in the United States consumes, on average, every day to keep the electricity flowing. Despite its outdated image, coal generates half of our electricity, far more than any other source. Demand keeps rising, thanks in part to our appetite for new electronic gadgets and appliances; with nuclear power on hold and natural gas supplies tightening, coal’s importance is only going to increase. As Goodell puts it, “our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks.”

     To read the entire article, follow this link:

A locomotive crane unloading coal from railcars at a power plant in the late 1930s.

     Next week we’ll continue our regular series, following energy’s journey through the power plant.