Posts Tagged ‘steam turbine’

Coal Power Plant Fundamentals – Feeding The Furnace

Sunday, February 6th, 2011
     Today we’ll continue our discussion of coal’s journey through a power plant.  Keep in mind that the material presented in this series of blogs is meant to be a primer.  It is a simplification of what actually goes on.  My training seminars go into much more depth.

     Now imagine a five course meal spread out on the table before you. You load up your plate and pack a forkful of food into your mouth.  You instinctively chew, getting the digestive process underway and making it easier to swallow.  Power plants approach their consumption of coal in much the same way.

     Last time we talked about handling the coal and filling up silos for short term storage within the power plant building.  The coal silo is analogous to a dinner plate, and the furnace, which heats up the boiler water to make steam for the turbine, acts very much like a diner’s stomach.  As for the fork and your teeth, there are a couple of machines within power plants which mimic their behavior.  They’re called the coal feeder and coal mill.  The coal feeder does as its name implies, it systematically feeds a measured amount of coal to the coal mill.  The coal mill, also known as a pulverizer, then grinds the coal to make it easier for the furnace to burn it.

     Let’s take a look at Figure 1 below.  At the top of the configuration is the coal silo, which is fully open at the bottom.  Gravity draws the coal within the silo downward, facilitating the coal’s dropping through the opening into a chute, on its way to the coal feeder.  The coal from the silo spills into little buckets on a wheel within the feeder, and as the wheel turns, the coal spills out and falls down into another chute leading to the mill. 

Figure 1 – Feeding Coal To A Power Plant Furnace

     Now you could have the coal spill down a chute directly from the silo into the mill, bypassing the coal feeder entirely, but that’s really not a good idea.  Just think how difficult it would be to chew if you tried to stuff an entire plate of food into your mouth at once.  Just as your mouth requires to be fed in mouth-sized amounts, the coal mill must be fed coal in a size that it can handle.  It’s the job of the spinning wheel inside the coal feeder to keep coal flowing in measured amounts to the mill.  You see, the wheel is attached to a variable speed motor, and depending on how quickly the furnace needs to be fed, the wheel will either turn faster or slower.

     Once inside the mill, the coal is ground up before moving on to the furnace.  The coal mill contains massive steel parts capable of pulverizing chunks of coal into a fine black powder.  This pulverized coal is then propelled by means of an exhauster towards the burners.

     The exhauster sits next to the coal mill and both are often driven by the same electric motor.  The exhauster is  connected to the top of the mill by a pipe, and another pipe connects the exhauster to burners on the furnace.  The exhauster acts like a big vacuum cleaner, sucking coal powder out of the mill, then blowing it through pipes leading to the burners.  Finally, the powder ignites within the furnace, heating the water inside the boiler.

     Next time we’ll learn about the combustion process in the power plant furnace. 


Coal Power Plant Fundamentals

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

     Several years ago I was asked by power producers within the electric utility industry to write and then present a training course on the subject of coal power plant fundamentals.  The finished product was a two day introductory course on the energy transformation process within a coal fired plant.

     Since that time my seminar, entitled Coal Power Plant Fundamentals, has been presented to a variety of audiences, including Mirant Corporation, Platte River Power Authority, and Integrys Energy Group, Inc.  Audience makeup has been diverse and has included equipment manufacturers, mining companies, power industry consultants, and regulatory agencies.

     This seminar, which I continue to present today in meeting rooms across the country, covers all major systems in a typical power plant, from coal handling when the coal first enters the plant, to its eventual end destination, the electrical switch yard which facilitates power transmission to customers.  My Power Point presentation is embellished with ample illustrations, including photographs that I have taken during the course of my career and diagrams which I created using CAD, or Computer Aided Drawing software, one of which is featured below.  In addition to the overhead slides, I provide a 150-page bound book which is distributed to seminar attendees.  They use it to both follow along with my lecture and have a source of refresher material to take home with them.  I’ve been told that having my illustrations in front of them makes a world of difference towards their understanding of the subject matter.

     The unique thing about my course is that it focuses on the simplified presentation of complex engineering concepts, much like my blogs do.  Of course it always helps to have an engineering background or scientific background of sorts, but I wrote the course to accommodate understanding of the subject matter by individuals without any technical background.  Accountants, salespersons, administrative staff, plant operating and maintenance workers, and journalists have all found the course to be easy to follow, interesting, and informative.

     So how do you get electricity from coal?  To answer this question and give you a sampling of my seminar material let’s take a look at Figure 1. 

Figure 1 – The Coal Power Plant Energy Transformation Process

     Following along from left to right, the coal is first burned in order to transform the chemical energy which it contains into heat energy.  That heat energy is then absorbed by water inside a nearby boiler, where it is converted into steam.  The heat energy in the steam flows through a pipe into a steam turbine where it is again transformed, this time into mechanical energy that enables the turbine shaft to spin.  The mechanical energy in the turbine is then transmitted by its shaft, enabling it to turn an electrical generator.  And, finally, the mechanical energy is transformed by the generator into electrical energy for our usage.

     Simple process, right?  Well, maybe, maybe not.  My illustration certainly helped to simplify things, but there are a lot of details that were purposely omitted so as not to “muddy the waters.”  It’s those details which have the potential to make things a lot more complicated, and next week we’ll begin to take a closer look at some of them.  


Sound and Exposure Standards

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

     How many crickets clicking their legs together in unison would it take before we would suffer hearing loss at the sound exposure? Would we need to sit in a garden filled with millions of them all night long, only to discover in the morning that we could no longer hear the tea kettle’s whistle? The chart below may not provide the answer to this question, but it does provide some very good examples of different sounds and the point at which they become hazardous.

     So how do we know where we’re at safety-wise with sound pressure levels and exposure times? This question wasn’t pondered until the 1950s, when the military, specifically the Air Force, provided the first standards in this regard in 1956. This initial action was followed up by numerous studies and standards committees wrestling with the issue. It wasn’t until 1981 that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) required employers to implement hearing conservation programs for employees in certain noise-filled environments.

     What surprised many of the first scientists studying the impact of sound is that sounds don’t necessarily have to be initially perceived as “too loud” in order to cause hearing loss. Many sounds that we perceive as easily tolerated can in fact cause hearing damage if exposure is long enough.

     So what’s “long enough?” Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 1910.95, lists the OSHA permissible sound exposure durations at various sound levels, as shown in Table 1.

Duration of Exposure (Hrs.) Sound Level (dB)
8 90
6 92
4 95
3 97
2 100
1.5 102
1 105
0.5 110
0.25 or less 115

Table 1 – OSHA Permissible Noise Exposures

     Just to put things into perspective, a small chain saw tearing into a log typically produces sound at 90dB, or 90 decibels, which you will recall from last week’s article is the measuring unit used for sound. And that noisy truck clattering down your street, the one that your dog can’t help but bark at, can produce 100dB. The guy standing on the airport tarmac directing your plane into the gate can be exposed to as much as 150dB. There’s a good reason he’s wearing ear protection.

     Let’s take a closer look at the information provided in Table 1. It states that you most likely will not suffer hearing loss if you spend up to 8 hours in a place where the sound level does not exceed 90dB. Comparing that information to Table 2, which is specific to noises produced at a power plant, we see that this sound level is produced by the typical steam turbine.

     One thing to keep in mind is that when we are exposed to various sounds throughout the day, we can compute a time-weighted average noise, or TWAN, to help us determine if our overall environment poses a threat to our hearing. This method of assessing the gross impact of many different sound exposures is represented by the formula:

TWAN = (C1 ÷ T1) + (C2 ÷ T2) + (C3 ÷ T3) + …

where C represents the total time of exposure at a measured sound level, and T represents the total time of exposure. T, which in our example stands for “hours,” is found in the left column of Table 1. Based on scientific studies of sound’s effects on the human ear, if the TWAN is greater than 1.0, then the exposure exceeds safe limits.

     Let’s find out if a worker in a coal fired power plant is at risk of losing his hearing during the course of a typical eight hour workday. Table 2 shows the different noises he has to contend with during that time.

Duration of Exposure (Hrs.) Location Sound Level (dB)
0.5 Steam Turbine Basement 90
2.5 Air Compressor Room 95
0.25 Forced Draft Fan Gallery 110

Table 2 – Example Exposure in an 8 Hour Day

     Now let’s find out if his OSHA recommended sound exposure limit has been exceeded. The values for C, or total time of exposure, are given in the left column, and the corresponding sound level in dB’s is shown in the right column of Table 2. Using these numbers as a reference, we now correlate them with the information contained in Table 1 which cites the OSHA standards. Plugging in the numbers, we find that this worker’s TWAN would be:

TWAN = (0.5 hours ÷ 8 hours) + (2.5 hours ÷ 4 hours) + (0.25 hours ÷ 0.5 hours)

= 1.18

     Since 1.18 is greater than 1.0, we see that the worker’s noise limit would indeed be exceeded. He would need to either wear hearing protection or limit his exposure time in order to comply with OSHA regulations and protect his hearing.

     Next time we’ll discuss options open to us to control sounds in our environment.


Coal Fired Boiler Explosions

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

     Try this for a tongue-twister:  Coal fired electric utility power plant boiler…  If you’ve been reading along with us for the last couple of weeks, you now have a pretty good idea of what these are and what they do.

     These boilers are contained within furnaces in coal fired power plants.  The furnace’s job is to combine coal and air to create a combustion process.  It is like a big, insulated enclosure that keeps the heat energy from the combustion process from escaping before it can be absorbed by the water and steam in the boiler tubes.  The heat energy is then funneled to the steam turbine to spin an electrical generator, creating the energy which will eventually find its way into our homes and businesses.

     During the operation of the boiler, coal and air must be introduced into the furnace at carefully measured rates to maintain a proper fuel-to-air ratio which will enable the release of heat energy from the coal at a safe, controlled rate.  Fuel-air ratio is the amount of coal entering the furnace divided by the amount of air entering the furnace.  If this ratio isn’t precisely maintained, conditions may be right for an explosion to occur.  Specifically, the ratio has to fall within an “explosive range.”  Once within this range, all that is needed is an ignition source, such as hot ash, or even mere static electricity, and the result may be a furnace explosion.  

     There are certain times at which furnace explosions are more likely to occur than others, such as when the boiler is being started, operated at less than full capacity, or shut down.  When a furnace explodes, a pressure wave moves out from the center of the blast.  This pressure wave will bear up against the sides of the furnace with great force, and if the pressure is high enough the sides of the furnace, which are made of heavy steel components, will actually bend and split open.  Boiler tubes may even rupture, releasing high pressure steam and water into the power plant and furnace.  At the very least, the boiler will be down for expensive repairs and no electricity can be produced by its turbine generator.  This down time can last for many months and results in lost revenue to the energy producer.

     Aside from an explosive fuel-to-air ratio, there are other potential causes of furnace explosions.  For example, poor coal quality can lead to incomplete combustion, or the flame going out completely, encouraging unburned coal particles to settle and accumulate in the furnace.  The accumulation of coal can grow to the point where it forms an explosive mixture when combined with the right amount of air.

     So how can boiler explosions be prevented?  The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) looked into the problem and developed an industry standard.  This standard is known as NFPA 85, Boiler and Combustion Systems Hazards Code.  Its purpose is to contribute to operating safety and prevent uncontrolled fires, explosions, and implosions of coal fired boilers.  NFPA 85 lays out guidelines to follow when designing, building, and operating boiler fuel handling systems, air handling systems, and combustion control systems.  Following its guidelines will certainly significantly decrease the probability of explosions occurring.

     Another means of explosion prevention includes implementing a boiler operator training program.  These enable attendees to better understand operating procedures and equip them with the knowledge to safely control the combustion process, particularly when a furnace explosion is most likely to occur.  This training can be done with a combination of classroom instruction along with time on a simulator and may be followed up with hands-on training in the plant itself.

     Lastly, boiler explosions can be prevented by implementing an effective inspection and maintenance program to locate and repair or replace boiler components, averting the possibility of a potential disaster occurring.  Things such as check lists can be used to ensure that nothing is missed.  This is a strategy that all pilots must use before starting their planes, and it is now being used in hospitals as well to cut back on the rate of patient infection due to carelessness on the part of hospital staff.

     Hey, we’re all human, and humans are not perfect.  But remember that an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure, and then some.  A properly placed check on the list could mean lives will be saved. 



Coal Power Plants, Far From Perfect

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

     Did you know that even a perpetual motion machine will eventually come to a stop due to uncontrollable factors?

     Well, uncontrollable factors are at play in power plants, too.   If you recall from our last article, heat rate is industry jargon for gauging how efficiently a coal-fired power plant is operating.  We learned that heat rate can be affected by things like missing thermal insulation on pipes and equipment.  Missing insulation is, of course, a thing that is under human control and easily corrected, but there are some things that affect heat rate that we just can’t do anything about.  They’re called, appropriately enough, uncontrollable factors.  

     Uncontrollable factors exist because anything devised and made by fallible humans who are beholden to the myriad laws of the universe cannot be 100 percent efficient.  At their best utility coal fired power plants have an overall efficiency of between 30 and 40 percent.  That means 60 to 70 percent of the energy available in the coal gets lost in the process of generating electricity.  A terrible waste, right?  And yet there’s nothing we can do to trim these losses until improvements in the present level of technology take place.  Just as our ability to track microbes is dictated by the strength and accuracy of our magnifying equipment, so are we hampered by the tools we have at our disposal to deal with inefficiencies such as energy losses. 

     So where does this energy get lost due to uncontrollable factors?  The first and probably most obvious place to look is the smoke stack.  Energy is also lost in three other ways: friction between equipment parts, auxiliary power consumption, and in a piece of equipment known as a condenser.  Let’s look at each. 

     In the most basic of terms, when coal is introduced into a power plant boiler it is combined with air and burned.  This burning process releases heat energy, but it also forms gases that contain nitrogen and compounds like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. There’s also some water vapor formed by moisture in the coal and air.  These gases and vapor absorb some of the heat energy released.  To keep the combustion process going the gases and vapor must be removed from the boiler by powerful fans and sent up the smoke stack.   Now, boilers are designed to absorb much of the heat energy from the gases and vapor that make their way to the stack, but they cannot possibly absorb it all.  The result is that a significant amount of heat escapes up the smoke stack into the atmosphere along with the gases. 

     Friction between parts is present everywhere in a power plant.  It exists in the bearings on the shafts of motors, pumps, and steam turbines, slowing them down and hindering their operating capacity.  Friction also exists where moving water and steam are present, impeding their ability to flow through piping systems.  There is even friction working against the steam as it flows through parts in the turbine.  Extra energy has to be expended to overcome this friction.  This is energy that could be used to generate electricity. 

     Now at some point in your life you’ve probably heard it said, “You need money to make money,” and this is very true.  It takes a certain investment of resources to produce a profit-making enterprise. This investment principle holds true for the making of electricity, too.  The bottom line is you need electricity to make electricity.  Specifically, you have to use significant amounts of electricity to power machinery that is essential to move coal, air, combustion gases, and water through the process of making electricity in the power plant.  This is called auxiliary power.  It’s the electricity siphoned off by the various pieces of equipment in a power plant in its quest to generate electrical energy to be sold to customers.  

     Another major factor at play in uncontrollable energy losses is in a piece of equipment integral to the very function of power plants: the condenser.  It comes into play when water is boiled to make steam which then travels through the turbine, spinning its electrical generator and creating electric power.  Unfortunately even the most efficient of steam turbines cannot use 100% of the heat energy coming at it from the steam.  

     You see, after steam leaves the turbine, it’s turned back into water by a condenser so it can be sent back to the boiler to be turned into steam again.  One of the reasons that this is done is so that the boiler does not have to be continuously filled with fresh, purified water.  Water purification is necessary to keep minerals, seaweed, fish scales, and other nasty things from clogging up and damaging the boiler and steam turbine, and purified water is not as readily available as, say, lake water.  The condenser acts as a heat exchanger that is hooked up to the steam turbine exhaust.  It has tubes inside of it in which cold water flows, water which is drawn in from a nearby body of water, most often a river or lake.  As steam blows across the outside of the cold water tubes in the condenser, it gives up its remaining heat energy and condenses into water again, then it is returned to the boiler to repeat its journey.  The river water within the tubes of the condenser flows back into the river, carrying with it the heat energy removed from the steam. 

     That wraps up our discussion about coal power plant efficiency.  Next time we’ll discuss a new topic: coal fired power plant furnace explosions.


Thermodynamics In Mechanical Engineering, Part II, Power Cycles

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

     Last time we talked about some general concepts in an area of mechanical engineering known as thermodynamics.  In this week’s article we’ll narrow our focus a bit to look at a part of thermodynamics that deals with power cycles.

     One mammoth example of a power cycle can be found in a coal-fired power plant.  You can’t help but notice these plants with their massive buildings, mountains of coal, and tall smoke stacks.  They’ve been getting a lot of negative press lately and are a central focus of the debate on global warming, but most people have no idea what’s going on inside of them.  Let’s take a peek.


Figure 1 – A Coal-Fired Power Plant

     A power plant has one basic function, to convert the chemical energy in coal into the electrical energy that we use in our modern lives, and it’s a power cycle that is at the heart of this conversion process.  The most basic power cycle in this instance would include a boiler, steam turbine, condenser, and a pump (see Figure 2 below).


Figure 2 – A Basic Power Cycle 

     When the coal is burned in the power plant furnace, its chemical energy is turned into heat energy.  This heat energy and the boiler are enclosed by the furnace so the boiler can more efficiently absorb the heat energy to make steam.  A pipe carries the steam from the boiler to a steam turbine.  Nozzles in the steam turbine convert the heat energy of the steam into kinetic energy, making the steam pick up speed as it leaves the nozzles.  The fast moving steam transfers its kinetic energy to the turbine blades, causing the turbine to spin, much like a windmill (see Figure 3 below).


Figure 3 – The Inner Workings of a Steam Turbine

     The spinning turbine is connected by a shaft to a generator.  The turbine works to spin the generator and thus produces electricity.  After the energy in the steam is used by the turbine, it goes to the condenser, whose job it is to convert the steam back into water.  To accomplish this, the condenser uses cold water, say from a nearby lake or river, to cool the steam down until it converts from a gas back to a liquid, that is, water.  This is why power plants are normally found adjacent to a body of water.  After things are cooled down, the pump gets to work, pushing the condensed water back into the boiler where it is once again turned into steam.  This power cycle keeps repeating itself as long as there is coal being burned in the furnace, the plant equipment is functioning properly, and electrical energy flows out of the power plant.

     Thermodynamics sets up an energy accounting system that enables mechanical engineers to design and analyze power cycles to make sure they are safe, reliable, efficient, and economical.   When all is said and done, a properly designed power cycle transfers as much heat energy as possible from the burning coal on one end of the cycle to meet the requirements for electrical power on the other end of the cycle.  As was mentioned in last week’s blog, nothing is 100% efficient.

     Next time we’ll learn about being cool.  No, I’m not going to talk about the latest cell phone gadget or who’s connected on Facebook.  We’ll be covering refrigeration cycles.