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American Electric Power: Producing Electricity More Efficiently

  • December 19, 2013

North America’s first ultra-supercritical (USC) electricity generating unit went into service near Fulton, Arkansas in 2012. The 600 megawatt coal-fired plant was built over a period of four years, in compliance with stringent state and federal environmental standards, at a cost of $1.8 billion.

Operated by Southwestern Electric Power Company, a division of American Electric Power (AEP), the USC plant is more efficient and cleaner than plants with supercritical (SC) generating units. In recognition of these state-of-the-art qualities, POWER magazine named it the Plant of the Year for 2013.

America’s electricity mix is always evolving. Coal currently accounts for about 39% of U.S. electricity, followed by natural gas at 27%, nuclear power at 19%,and hydro power and renewables, at about 6% each, according to the Energy Information Administration. The agency projects that coal will continue to be the country’s leading source of electricity for a period of time, after which it may be surpassed by natural gas. Nonetheless, for the foreseeable future, coal will be a major source, and it will be important to continue to develop affordable, cleaner ways to generate electricity from coal. Clean coal technology is one approach. Getting more electricity per unit of coal is another.

That is where AEP's Arkansas plant comes in. How does it work? The key is the difference between SC and USC modes. The critical point of water, where vapor and liquid are indistinguishable (and added heat or pressure will not cause a change of state), is 705 degrees Fahrenheit. At the AEP plant, the USC unit operates above 1,100 degrees. Since the water is heated to produce superheated steam without boiling, this leads to a more efficient steam cycle, which reduces fuel consumption, reagent consumption, solid wastes, water use, and operating costs. It is more efficient due to the thermodynamics of hotter, higher-pressure steam through the turbine, making USC the most efficient steam-cycle technology available.

Earlier plants were operated in the SC mode, not the USC mode, because of the unavailability of metals that could withstand such temperatures. Now, recently developed chrome and nickel based alloys are used in the components of the steam generator, turbine, and piping systems, and can perform for long periods of time at the higher temperature conditions. The plant is named for former electricity executive John Turk, Jr. Fuel for the plant is low-sulfur coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

Texas Instruments: Leading in NanoPower Harvesting Innovation

  • December 10, 2013

One of today’s most exciting emerging technologies is a process called NanoPower Harvesting. The goal of this technology is to harness unexploited energy in the environment and put it to practical use. Extensive R&D efforts are underway.

Here is how Texas Instruments (TI), a technological leader in this developing field, paints the picture: “Imagine a world in which we’re surrounded by wireless sensors that monitor environmental conditions such as air quality, and they all simply scavenge the power they need from sunlight and elsewhere. The first glimmer of that day is already here.”

NanoPower Harvesting can be defined as systems that extract and manage tiny amounts of power from ambient sources such as light, solar, thermal, electromagnetic, or vibration to supply the power for low-power devices with applications that may not be possible with traditional battery-powered systems.

One future application is likely to be using energy from human body heat to power sensors for medical and fitness monitoring purposes, according to TI. Another could be monitoring the condition of infrastructure, such as bridges and levees, where checking and changing batteries is not especially practical. Yet another application almost certainly will include wireless monitoring of HVAC and lighting smart-systems in factories, office buildings, and homes.

TI has already introduced a number of products in this space. One is the bq25504 Ultra Low Power Boost Charger. This product does not harvest energy, but it provides the vital connection between a harvesting device (such as a photovoltaic solar cell) and an end-use electronic device. It features a high-efficiency current boost charger/converter, user-programmable power point tracking, cold-start capability, and flexible energy storage options. It operates on only 330 nano-amps, which TI notes is the best in the industry.

There is another environmental benefit of this technology. By reducing the need for batteries or extending their life, there will be fewer batteries ending up in landfills.

When placed on a wireless sensor node with three commonly available integrated circuit components, the bq25504 can extract energy from ambient light and use it in applications such as powering a microprocessor. This application provides a hint of the exciting things to come, as product designers will develop other innovative uses that conserve energy and improve our quality of life. In the interim, the work that TI is doing to expedite the use of this technology is a Great Manufacturing Story.

Huntsman: Largest Maker of Ethylene Oxide in North America

  • October 18, 2013

If you have never heard of ethylene oxide, don’t feel bad. The industrial chemical does not come up in casual conversation very often. But that does not mean it isn’t important.

According to the American Chemistry Council, ethylene oxide and its derivatives are used in the production of countless products that we do rely on every day, including polyester fiber for clothing, carpet and pillows; jet skis and bowling balls; bandages and sterile instruments; shampoos and cosmetics; upholstered furniture and bath tubs; engine antifreeze; and many more.

That is why it’s important that manufacturers have access to reliable, affordable supplies of the chemical. In October 2013, Huntsman Corp. announced a $125 million expansion of its ethylene oxide plant in Port Neches, Texas. Jefferson County is participating in the investment with a seven-year property tax abatement on the value of the improvements.

Once the expansion is completed in mid-2015, the Port Neches plant will be the second-largest producer of the chemical in the world, and the largest in North America. Capacity will increase from 1 billion pounds to 1.265 billion pounds per year. The expanded plant will employ about 325 people.

A remarkable aspect of the facility is that Huntsman purchased and refurbished a production unit that LyondellBasell had shut down in Beaumont after it sustained hurricane damage. Huntsman shipped the production unit down the Neches River by barge for installation in Port Neches.

For all of the everyday necessities that rely on ethylene oxide, the expansion of the Huntsman plant in Port Neches is a Great Manufacturing Story.