Clean Coal Technologies, Coal, Gas

Technology Drives Change New Technology

Issue 7 and Volume 102.

Technology Drives Change New Technology

By Brian K. Schimmoller,

Associate Editor

At the sixth Clean Coal Technology Conference in Reno, Nevada in late April, George Preston, former vice president of generation at the Electric Power Research Institute, made a profound, simple statement: “Technology drives change.” Many people would intuitively switch this around, contending that technology is driven by changing business, environmental, economic and societal forces. A closer look at some modern technology highlights the paradigm shift. The computer, for example, although developed in response to demand for a faster, more reliable calculation machine, has had a much greater impact on society in general, changing the very way lives are led and businesses are run. Now we`re seeing similar dynamics in the electric power industry. Advanced gas turbine technology has assumed a self-sustaining momentum; when one set of firing temperature and efficiency goals is reached, pursuit of the next set begins.

The pace of new technology development in the power generation industry is refreshing and exciting. At the Clean Coal Technology Conference, gasification was a particularly popular topic. In addition to the impressive technology on display at the nearby Piñon Pine coal-fired integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) facility, attendees heard about gasification`s increasing popularity at petrochemical facilities, firing refinery byproducts, and about the possibility of using gasification for coproduction, where syngas is used to produce both premium chemicals and electricity. The intersection of electricity and chemicals production is one of those areas where technology can drive change. According to Frank Mittricker, senior engineering associate with Exxon Chemical Co., by optimizing gasification technology for maximum flexibility, the gas molecules produced become the most valuable commodity; finding the most appropriate blend of those molecules–through a gas turbine for electricity generation and/or through a refinery train for liquid fuel production–becomes the primary objective.

Doug Todd, IGCC manager for GE, painted a rosy picture for gasification technology. A total of almost 5,000 MW of gasification capacity is in operation or under construction for power generation, cogeneration or coproduction around the world. A staggering 60 GW sum of gasification capacity is currently in operation or at some stage of development. Additional development is somewhat constrained by reported high first costs for gasification plants, but accumulated experience, and a focus on life-cycle cost of electricity, will increase implementation.

IGCC technology as a whole depends on the technology that makes up its parts. Advances in gas turbine technology, therefore, can ultimately have an impact on the commercial viability of IGCC systems. At Howmet Corp.`s recent dedication in Whitehall, Michigan, attendees had the opportunity to see the future of materials and coating technology for aircraft and land-based gas turbines. Howmet displayed a modified spray forming process that it developed in conjunction with Pratt & Whitney. Spray forming is a one-step conversion of molten alloy into dense, fine-grained, homogeneous, semi-finished engine components. Elimination of several intermediate steps results in lower production costs, improved cycle times and reduced contamination; the direct conversion process also results in products with workability and fatigue properties better than those of wrought components, at comparable strength.

Howmet is working with Westinghouse, Solar Turbines, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, AlliedSignal, Capstone and others on the application of advanced materials to large and small turbines. The cost-effective availability of improved materials for Capstone`s 30 kW MicroTurbine, for example, may accelerate the commercial application of such units for distributed generation, providing another example of technology driving change.

When stacked up against the bells, whistles, beeps and rings of other modern-day technologies such as cell phones, laptop computers, virtual reality and the internet, new power generation technology sometimes may appear unexciting–if not boring–to the casual observer. Its impact, however, can be substantial, resounding throughout society in the form of lower electricity costs, reduced environmental impacts and greater reliability. p