Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 3/2014

All power plant is chemistry!

My highly appreciated colleague Dr Martin Hein asked himself and the readers in the March 2013 issue of VGB POWERTECH whether power plant chemistry has a future. I am convinced that I was not the only one who thought about his warnings and words that stirred up in the light of the difficult situation in the energy business. Viewing the end of my professional life, I would like to make a case to respond to the question raised by Martin Hein, and I follow freely the well known aphorism “all life is chemistry”, i.e. “all power plant is chemistry!” Some may find this statement courageous; however, I can prove it. When reflecting on the history of power plant engineering, we return to the beginnings in the 1920ies when severe boiler damages initiated the foundation of the feedwater committee of the Association of Large Boiler Operators in order to reveal and understand the relationship between steam and material. Only the findings and knowledge about the formation of oxide layers – naturally a chemical process – and keeping of those layers during operation enabled utilisation of metallic materials in power plant engineering and thus the rapid development of larger and more efficient units.

Ion exchanger and membrane technique in emineralisation and condensate polishing plants produce feedwater that meets highly sophisticated requirements thus permitting the trouble-free operation of plants with extreme steam conditions.

In the 1970ies, when power plant chemistry seemed to be restricted to water cycles and fuel chemistry – the latter of minor importance due to constant fuel quality and origins – a new field of activities opened up for power plant chemists triggered by the discussions about sulphur dioxide, which was the main culprit for acid rain and declining forests. A double-volume VGB system study considered more than one hundred variants to remove sulphur dioxide from flue gases and/or sulphur from fuel. It goes without saying that all these variants were chemical processes! Power plant chemistry was facing new challenges. Power plants were equipped with additional chemical factories which produced gypsum and needed waste water treatment systems. The reactions inside flue gas scrubbers needed to be investigated and to be understood because without knowing their chemistry it would not have been possible to operate these plants safely and reliably. Technical scientific studies, supported by VGB PowerTech, are dealing with heavy metal control by flue gas scrubbers. This issue is still on top of the agenda when thinking about mercury or selenium. Instrumental analytics also entered power plant laboratories and created a completely new daily routine for power plant chemists. Only a short time later, plants for removing nitrogen oxides from flue gases were introduced. And naturally, the selective catalytic reduction of nitrogen oxides is also a chemical reaction! Catalyst management, bench test rigs for checking the catalyst behaviour and the development of catalyst replacement routines aiming at cost cutting became issues of the portfolio of power plant chemists.

But also fuel chemistry regained importance to avoid plant damage caused by the increasing use of imported coal and substitute fuels like biomass. Today, power plant chemistry calls for highly qualified experts with broad experience. Results have to be provided reliably and with utmost precision. However, these results also have to be evaluated in order to draw right conclusions and to offer solutions to problems. Power plant chemists have to explain how to interpret the results obtained, which consequences can be expected and whether action is needed to prevent damage. Power plant chemistry faces new challenges, even or because of the “Energiewende” (turnaround in German energy policy). This involves control of the adjusted modes of operation of conventional power plants with rapid load changes and frequent start-up and shutdown as well as unplanned and longer standstills. Issues like capture and storage of CO2, the newly triggered discussion about heavy metal emissions from coal-fired power plants and the planning of power plants with higher temperatures and pressures including the unavoidable question about the relationship between medium and material are also added. Therefore, I am not worried about the future of power plant chemistry, if only we manage to recruit junior chemists and carry on exchanging knowledge and experience through the associations.

Although I believe that I have proven my case, finally I would like to confine my words that my dear colleagues of the other important disciplines become mellow:

Not all is chemistry but nothing goes without it!