West Virginia University researchers are leading commercial-scale research and development of two new innovations at the country’s most efficient coal-fired power plant in Maidsville. The devices, a corrosion sensor invented at WVU and a gas sensor invented at Los Alamos National Laboratory, could make coal combustion more efficient with fewer emissions and fewer unplanned outages saving millions of dollars.

The WVU Electrochemical Systems Research Center, directed by Xingbo Liu, plans to conduct experiments of the sensors at Longview Power, LLC’s 700 net megawatt power plant under two projects that total $1.8 million. The projects are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory with matching contributions from the participating organizations. Researchers from WVU, Los Alamos and two private-sector firms are collaborating on the efforts.

“We are very excited that Longview is working with us. They are an ideal partner because of their commitment to use the latest technology,” said Liu, who is also a WVU professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Longview employs state-of-the-art electricity generation and emissions technologies and best available control technology that outperforms current strict environmental regulations. The plant sets a new standard for future coal plants to achieve according to company officials. Longview is located near WVU’s Morgantown campus.

The corrosion sensor team includes Liu and WVU Chemical Engineering Professor Debangsu Bhattacharyya; Chad Hufnagel of Longview Power; and WVU-spinoff Aspinity, led by Chief Technology Officer Brandon Rumberg, who will be developing the electronics. The gas sensor research team includes Liu; Hufnagel; Rangachary Mukundan, Eric Brosha, and Cortney R. Kreller of Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Michael Carter and Bennet Meulendyk of KWJ Engineering, Inc. who will be assisting with the gas sensor commercial packaging.

“It is an honor to be working with such knowledgeable people who are respected in their fields,” Liu said. “For us to succeed at this scale, we need cooperation from experts who have different backgrounds and experience.”

The corrosion sensor is a first-of-a-kind, wireless, self-powered device that can withstand the high temperature, ash-laden environment of the fire side of a utility boiler. This sensor can flag the early signs of localized corrosion of key equipment, such as boiler tubes, before a failure occurs. According to the North American Electric Reliability Council, tube failures are a leading cause of forced plant shutdowns that cost utilities hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

“Currently, we are not able to anticipate impending tube leaks between our regularly scheduled maintenance outages,” said Stephen Nelson, chief operating officer for Longview. “We’re very interested in this technology because it could provide valuable information to help us avoid forced outages.”

The gas sensor will measure directly any carbon monoxide gases that indicate incomplete combustion, a sign of wasted fuel, lower efficiency, and elevated greenhouse gas and harmful air emissions. The experimental sensors are intended to withstand the extreme environment of a boiler with temperatures of 1,200°C or higher. No sensor to date has met this goal. The device could provide real-time feedback to plant operators to allow them to optimize combustion. “The application of advanced sensor concepts to provide direct feedback of combustion processes can lead to significant improvements in power plant operation efficiency,” said Eric Brosha of Los Alamos National Laboratory.  

“If these prototype gas sensors meet Longview’s criteria for commercial viability, then we hope to install a full sensor grid to allow us to increase our ability to monitor and control the fuel and air components. We hope to be a case study of the before-and-after performance benefits,” Nelson said.

The goal is for both sensors to improve operations for any coal-fired boiler. The ESRC will work with WVU’s Office of Technology Transfer to move the sensors to market if the commercial-scale tests succeed.

The ESRC, which is based in the WVU Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, came about because of an $850,000 award beginning in 2012 by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Division of Science under its Research Challenge Grant. “This demonstrates the importance of the Research Challenge Grant program to creating collaborative research centers like ESRC.  Such collaborations lead to innovations that serve the interests of West Virginia and the nation. Clearly, this investment is paying off,” said Gene Cilento, Glen Hiner Dean of the Statler College.

“This exciting collaboration led by ESRC is a perfect example of the partnerships across the university and with commercial partners for moving innovations from the laboratory into deployment. This project demonstrates how industry, government and WVU are leading West Virginia forward by deploying new and advanced technologies,” said Brian J. AndersonWVU Energy Institute director.

(From Trina Wafle for WVU Today. Photo courtesy of West Virginia University).