### Electrocution by Microwave Oven

Sunday, August 21st, 2011
 Ever been jolted with electric current?  Like the time you’d just gotten out of the shower and went to plug in a lamp with damp hands?  So what do you think the voltage was that caused that nasty biting feeling that resulted from your momentary lapse in good judgment?       Once, while operating a subway car at a railroad museum at which I was a member, I was inadvertently “electrocuted.”  I went to turn on the lights inside the car, and unbeknownst to me the light switch was faulty.  When I touched it I instantly became connected to the car’s 600 volt lighting circuit.  With just a split second of contact the current passed through the tip of my right index finger, along my right arm, down the right side of my body, and out the tip of my big toe, finally exiting into the metal railcar’s body.  The current actually burned a hole where it had exited through my boot.  The experience was both frightening and painful, but fortunately did not result in any real injury.  I was lucky that the current had bypassed my heart, because if it hadn’t, I might not be alive today.      That was 600 volts.  Now imagine being jolted by the 4000 volts present in a microwave oven’s internal high voltage circuitry.      Last week we discovered how the high voltage circuit in a microwave oven converts the ordinary, everyday 120 volts alternating current (AC) present in our homes into a much higher voltage approximating direct current (DC).  This is done by an internal component known as the capacitor.  The capacitor is capable of storing large amounts of electrical energy, and this can result in microwave ovens presenting a danger even when unplugged.      A microwave oven capacitor is shown in Figure 1.  If you happened to touch its wire terminals while it’s still charged, its power can rapidly discharge high voltage electrical current throughout your body.  The electrical current from the capacitor can even stop your heart from beating, and this is exactly what caused the demise of a person featured on a soon to be released Discovery Channel program, Curious and Unusual Deaths.  While being interviewed as an expert for the program, I was asked to explain this rather unique phenomenon of latent stored energy, and how it may present a threat. Figure 1 – A Microwave Oven Capacitor      Remember, a microwave oven capacitor can remain charged with dangerous electrical energy for hours, even days, after the microwave oven plug is pulled from the wall outlet.   The bottom line here is that you should not attempt to fix your microwave oven, unless you are trained and certified to do so.       Next week we’ll switch to a different topic, namely an electrical device known as a “wall wart.”  That’s the black plastic adapter you plug into electrical outlets to power your cell phones, laptops, and other small electronics.  ____________________________________________

### Coal Power Plant Fundamentals – Coal Handling

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

 If you’ve ever read a book to a small child on the subject of food or digestion, you’ve probably come across the analogy that our stomachs are like a furnace and our digestive system much like an engine.  We explain to the youngster that what we eat is important, because our body needs the right fuel in order to operate properly.  If little Susie or Danny insisted on eating only candy day after day, their bodies would become weak and sick.      In much the same way a coal power plant is like a living organism, eating fuel in order to function.  But instead of meats and vegetables, it eats coal, and the coal handling department of a power plant acts as a dinner table.  It’s where the food is placed and prepared before it enters the diner’s mouth.      The coal our power plants consume comes from one of two places, underground mines or strip mines. It all depends on the particular geology of the area from which the coal is harvested.  According to the US Energy Information Administration, underground mines are more common in the eastern United States, while strip mines are more common in the western states.  The coal from underground mines is excavated by means of shafts and tunnels which are dug deep beneath the earth’s surface in order to provide access to the buried coal deposits.  In strip mines the deposits are just below the surface, so the topsoil is merely stripped away with heavy earthmoving machinery, like bulldozers, to reveal the coal.  In both types of mining activity excavating machines and conveyors are required to remove the coal from the mine so it can be loaded for shipment to its ultimate destination.      Once harvested, coal is shipped to power plants primarily by train, river barge, or ship.  Its journey can cover thousands of miles.  It culminates in delivery to a power plant, where it is unloaded by means of a huge piece of machinery called a rotary dumper.  This machine is capable of grabbing onto 100 ton railcars and turning them upside down.  The coal spills into a large collection hopper positioned next to the railroad track.      If the coal has found its way to a plant located near a waterway, that means of transport was most likely have been made by flat barge or ship.  In this case a large crane with a clamshell bucket is used for unloading.  The crane drops its bucket into a pile of coal located within the ship’s hold, takes out a large bite, then hoists and dumps its contents into a large collection hopper next to the crane.      To get an idea of how coal flows within the coal handling system of a power plant, let’s refer to the flow chart in Figure 1. Figure 1 – Schematic Diagram of the Coal Handling System      Collection hoppers and have slanted bottoms which allow coal to easily spill out onto a conveyor belt.  Within the plant coal is transported by means of conveyors into what’s known as a “breaker building.”  This building lives up to its name because it contains a very large machine whose job it is to break the chunks of raw coal that have been harvested from mines into smaller chunks which the boiler can work with.      Once broken down, the coal will go to one of two places, either directly into silos or coal bunkers in the power plant building for short term storage, or into an outside storage pile, usually a prominent feature of a power plant due to its formidable size.  The coal pile can be several stories tall and much larger than a football field.  It acts as a reserve supply should the regular delivery of coal be interrupted by labor strike, natural disaster, or equipment failure.  When necessary, the coal is removed from the pile and sent into the plant to fill the coal silos.  Coal from the silos is used to feed the power plant boilers.      Next week we’ll continue to follow coal’s journey, on its way to arguably one of the most important pieces of equipment in a power plant, the boiler. _____________________________________________

### Diesel Locomotive Brakes

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

 In the past few weeks we’ve taken a look at both mechanical and dynamic brakes.  Now it’s time to bring the two together for unparalleled stopping performance.      Have you ever wandered along a railroad track, hopping from tie to tie, daring a train to come roaring along and wondering if you could jump to safety in time?  Many have, and many have lost the bet.  That’s because a train, once set into motion, is one of the hardest things on Earth to bring to a stop.  In this discussion, let’s focus on the locomotive.  A large, six-axle variety is shown in Figure 1. Figure 1 – A Six-Axle Diesel-Electric Locomotive      These massive iron horses are known in the industry as diesel-electric locomotives, and here’s why.  As Figure 2 shows, diesel-electric locomotives are powered by huge diesel engines.  Their engine spins an electrical generator which effectively converts mechanical energy into electrical energy.  That electrical energy is then sent from the generator through wires to electric traction motors which are in turn connected to the locomotive’s wheels by a series of gears.  In the case of a six-axle locomotive, there are six traction motors all working together to make the locomotive move.  So how do you get this beast to stop?   Figure 2 – The Propulsion System In A Six-Axle Diesel-Electric Locomotive      You probably noticed in Figure 2 that there are resistor grids and cooling fans.  As long as you’re powering a locomotive’s traction motors to move a train, these grids and fans won’t come into play.  It’s when you want to stop the train that they become important.  That’s when the locomotive’s controls will act to disconnect the traction motor wires running from the electrical generator and reconnect them to the resistor grids as shown in Figure 3 below. Figure 3 – The Dynamic Braking System In A Six-Axle Diesel Electric Locomotive      The traction motors now become generators in a dynamic braking system.  These motors take on the properties of a generator, converting the moving train’s mechanical, or kinetic, energy into electrical.  The electrical energy is then moved by wires to the resistor grids where it is converted to heat energy.  This heat energy is removed by powerful cooling fans and released into the atmosphere.  In the process the train is robbed of its kinetic energy, causing it to slow down.      Now you may be thinking that dynamic brakes do all the work, and this is pretty much true, up to a point.  Although dynamic brakes may be extremely effective in slowing a fast-moving train, they become increasingly ineffective as the train’s speed decreases.  That’s because as speed decreases, the traction motors spin more slowly, and they convert less kinetic energy into electrical energy.  In fact, below speeds of about 10 miles per hour dynamic brakes are essentially useless.  It is at this point that the mechanical braking system comes into play to bring the train to a complete stop.      Let’s see how this switch from dynamic to mechanical dominance takes place.  A basic mechanical braking system for locomotive wheels is shown in Figure 4.  This system, also known as a pneumatic braking system, is powered by compressed air that is produced by the locomotive’s air pump.  A similar system is used in the train’s railcars, employing hoses to move the compressed air from the locomotive to each car.  Figure 4 – Locomotive Pneumatic Braking System      In the locomotive pneumatic braking system, pressurized air enters an air cylinder.  Once inside, the air bears against a spring-loaded piston, as shown in Figure 4(a).  The piston moves, causing brake rods to pivot and clamp the brake shoes to the locomotive’s wheel with great force, slowing the locomotive.  When you want to get the locomotive moving again, you vent the air out of the cylinder as shown in Figure 4(b).  This takes the pressure off the piston, releasing the force from the brake shoes.  The spring in the cylinder is now free to move the shoes away from the wheel so they can turn freely.  We have now returned to the situation present in Figure 2, and the locomotive starts moving again.      Next week we’ll talk about regenerative braking, a variation on the dynamic braking concept used in railway vehicles like electric locomotives and subway trains. _____________________________________________