Windmills, Waterwheels, Steam Engine, Electric Power, Coal, Heat Engine, Steam Turbine, Generator and Coal-Fired Power Plant

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 11th, 2012

Technology 101

By burning Coal to Boil Water into Steam to Move a Piston we could Build a Factory Anywhere

We created advanced civilization by harnessing energy.  And converting this energy into working power.  Our first efforts were biological.  Feeding and caring for large animals made these animals strong.  Their physiology converted food and water into strong muscles and bones.  Allowing them to pull heavy loads.  From plowing.  To heavy transportation.  To use in construction.  Of course the problem with animals is that they’re living things.  They eat and drink.  And poop and pee.  Causing a lot of pollution in and around people.  Inviting disease.

As civilization advanced we needed more energy.  And we found it in wind and water.  We built windmills and waterwheels.  To capture the energy in moving wind and moving water.  And converted this into rotational motion.  Giving us a cleaner power source than working animals.  Power that didn’t have to rest or eat.  And could run indefinitely as long as the wind blew and the water flowed.  Using belts, pulleys, cogs and gears we transferred this rotational power to a variety of work stations.  Of course the problem with wind and water is that you needed to be near wind and water.  Wind was more widely available but less reliable.  Water was more reliable but less widely available.  Each had their limitations.

The steam engine changed everything.  By burning a fuel (typically coal) to boil water into steam to move a piston we could build a factory anywhere.  Away from rivers.  And even in areas that had little wind.  The reciprocating motion of the piston turned a wheel to convert it into rotational motion.  Using belts, pulleys, cogs and gears we transferred this rotational power to a variety of work stations.  This carried us through the Industrial Revolution.  Then we came up with something better.  The electric motor.  Instead of transferring rotational motion to a workstation we put an electric motor at the work station.  And powered it with electricity.  Using electric power to produce rotational motion at the workstation.  Electricity and the electric motor changed the world just as the steam engine had changed the world earlier.  Today the two have come together.

You can tell a Power Plant uses a Scrubber by the White Steam puffing out of a Smokestack

Coal has a lot of energy in it.  When we burn it this energy is transformed into heat.  Hot heat.  For coal burns hot.  The modern coal-fired power plant is a heat engine.  It uses the heat from burning coal to boil water into steam.  And as steam expands it creates great pressure.  We can use this pressure to push a piston.  Or turn a steam turbine.  A rotational device with fins.  As the steam pushes on these fins the turbine turns.  Converting the high pressure of the steam into rotational motion.  We then couple this rotational motion of the steam turbine to a generator.  Which spins the generator to produce electricity.

Coal-fired power plants are hungry plants.  A large plant burns about 1,000 tons of coal an hour.  Or about 30,000 pounds a minute.  That’s a lot of coal.  We typically deliver coal to these plants in bulk.  Via Great Lakes freighters.  River barges.  Or unit trains.  Trains made up of nothing but coal hopper cars.  These feed coal to the power plants.  They unload and conveyor systems take this coal and create big piles.  You can see conveyors rising up from these piles of coal.  These conveyors transport this coal to silos or bunkers.  Further conveyor systems transfer the coal from these silos to the plant.  Where it is smashed and pulverized into a dust.  And then it’s blown into the firebox, mixed with hot air and ignited.  Creating enormous amounts of heat to boil an enormous amount of water.  Creating the steam to turn a turbine.

Of course, with combustion there are products left over.  Sulfur impurities in the coal create sulfur dioxide.  And as the coal burns it leaves behind ash.  A heavy ash that falls to the bottom of the firebox.  Bottom ash.  And a lighter ash that is swept away with the flue gases.  Fly ash.  Filters catch the fly ash.  And scrubbers use chemistry to remove the sulfur dioxide from the flue gases.  By using a lime slurry.  The flue gases rise through a falling mist of lime slurry.  They chemically react and create calcium sulfate.  Or Gypsum.  The same stuff we use to make drywall out of.  You can tell a power plant uses a scrubby by the white steam puffing out of a smokestack.  If you see great plumes puffing out of a smokestack there’s little pollution entering the atmosphere.  A smokestack that isn’t puffing out a plume of white steam is probably spewing pollution into the atmosphere.

Coal is a Highly Concentrated Source of Energy making Coal King when it comes to Electricity

When the steam exits the turbines it enters a condenser.  Which cools it and lowers its temperature and pressure.  Turning the steam back into water.  It’s treated then sent back to the boiler.  However, getting the water back into the boiler is easier said than done.  The coal heats the water into a high pressure steam.  So high that it’s hard for anything to enter the boiler.  So this requires a very powerful pump to overcome that pressure.  In fact, this pump is the biggest pump in the plant.  Powered by electric power.  Or steam.  Sucking some 2-3 percent of the power the plant generates.

Coupled to the steam turbine is a power plant’s purpose.  Generators.  Everything in a power plant serves but one purpose.  To spin these generators.  And when they spin they generate a lot of power.  Producing some 40,000 amps at 10,000 to 30,000 volts at a typical large plant.  Multiplying current by power and you get some 1,200 MW of power.  Which can feed a lot of homes with 100 amp, 240 volt services.  Some 50,000 with every last amp used in their service.  Or more than twice this number under typical loads.  Add a few boilers (and turbine and generator sets) and one plant can power every house and business across large geographic areas in a state.  Something no solar array or wind farm can do.  Which is why about half of all electricity produced in the U.S. is generated by coal-fired power plants.

Coal is a highly concentrated source of energy.  A little of it goes a long way.  And a lot of it produces enormous amounts of electric power.  Making coal king when it comes to electricity.  There is nothing that can match the economics and the logistics of using coal.  Thanks to fracking, though, natural gas is coming down in price.  It can burn cleaner.  And perhaps its greatest advantage over coal is that we can bring a gas-fired plant on line in a fraction amount of the time it takes to bring a coal-fired plant on line.  For coal-fired plants are heat engines that boil water into steam to spin turbines.  Whereas gas-fired plants use the products of combustion to spin their turbines.  Utilities typically use a combination of coal-fired and gas-fired plants.  The coal-fired plants run all of the time and provide the base load.  When demand peaks (when everyone turns on their air conditioners in the evening) the gas-fired plants are brought on line to meet this peak demand.


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