Addressing Engineering Challenges Before Disaster Hits

Issue 9 and Volume 115.

   By Ahmad Haidari, Energy Industry Marketing Director, ANSYS Inc.

A string of accidents and failures in energy-related projects—especially recent events related to the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan—has sharpened the global focus on a safe, reliable energy supply.

Could these incidents have been avoided? Yes, there are engineering considerations that can be implemented to ensure the most robust facility design. The combination of technology advancements, economic and business considerations and human factors ultimately drives sustainable success of most energy projects. Engineering simulation can offer much knowledge and foresight in these areas, enabling more informed decisions on viability, reliability, environmental impact, efficiency in design, and failure analyses of many aspects of energy and power generation supply chain, nuclear or otherwise.

Discussion about the “correct” energy source—and whether or not new nuclear power plants should be developed—is a moot point. We need to understand and manage all risks. It is within engineering’s capacity to maintain, upgrade, design and develop new sources of energy as well as build new power-generation plants. It would be foolish not to use and apply the tools at our disposal to help evaluate products and examine design options from different perspectives, all using simulation-driven product development.

Consider first the nuclear industry. Virtual analysis solutions are applied across the entire engineering and design process, involving different disciplines including explicit dynamic, linear and nonlinear structural mechanics, fluid mechanics, electronic and electromagnetic as well as throughout the nuclear energy supply chain: mining and processing, plant engineering and construction, fuel systems, thermohydraulic systems, balance of power, spent fuel disposal and regulatory compliance. Specific applications include seismic studies, design of reinforced concrete materials, piping and pressure vessels, welding processes, components, stress and fatigue analysis, containment, nuclear reactor safety, boiling and heat transfer systems, steam generation, drop testing and spent-fuel processing.

A loss of coolant accident (LOCA) is one of many examples in which engineering simulation is used to perform what-if analysis in preparation for and response to a nuclear reactor incident. Similarly, when designing facilities, engineers can consider the environmental impact including seismic event, wind and wave loading, air and water contamination and so on. For instance, what is the impact of hurricane-force winds, earthquakes or tornadoes? This is now possible more easily than, say, 40 years ago by conducting virtual prototyping to understand the effect and the associated design requirements to examine severe and unexpected environmental and human influences for worst case and what if analysis.

The engineering solutions technology used for this application and many others in the nuclear industry are developed to meet the stringent regulatory requirements of the nuclear industry. All aspects of the engineering simulation tools incorporate well-documented development processes and verified software releases complying with American Society of Mechanical Engineers NQA-1 standards. Because of this level of software quality, it becomes easier for the companies that work in the nuclear industry to use. These high-integrity, well-qualified, high-fidelity software programs can be used upfront and throughout the design and the life cycle to maintain, upgrade and analysis various components and systems in a nuclear power plant.

Another concern has been on current nuclear facilities. What steps can the industry take to ensure their five- to 10-year-old facility is up to meeting the next potential disaster? For existing facilities, it is possible to perform fitness-to-serve analysis of equipment evaluating fatigue, fracture, erosion and thermal stress to better understand and schedule maintenance, upgrades and decommissioning.

Just as engineering simulation tools improve the nuclear industry, virtual simulation for design and analysis can help innovate, improve, and explain product performance, and enhance product safety and reliability across the entire energy and power generation supply chain. There are ample other reasons to apply engineering simulation: to improve existing power generation technologies, enhance energy intensity, reduce energy use and, at the same time, develop innovative new solutions that balance demand, cost and environmental priorities. By applying engineering simulation early in product and project development, professionals can evaluate new concepts more cost effectively, faster and with greater frequency than with traditional prototyping and testing methods.

Safety will remain a primary concern for the energy industry, particularly for nuclear, coal and oil and gas. Advances in computational technology and engineering simulation solutions enables a more thorough analysis and helps evaluate scenarios and conditions that will lead to better design and decision making.

The industry can take numerous steps to make our infrastructure and our energy sources safer, leveraging engineering simulation for design as well as for continued maintenance; something we simply cannot afford not to do.

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