Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 3/2015

Power plant chemistry remains mandatory

Once at a celebration, my former CEO, Peter Høstgaard, spoke about time constants in thermal power plants: “The electricians know within milliseconds that something is wrong, the mechanics within hours or days, but the chemists would maybe not even realise before they’re retired.”

Our world is changing: the number of MWh produced by thermal power plants is rapidly declining, power prices are volatile and decreasing, fast load cycling is the rule and not the exception and starts/stops are frequent and often of unknown duration. How does the industry survive in this situation, where the economical time horizon is at the same time constantly reduced?
This situation certainly does not well suit power plant chemists.
Will we be obsolete? The answer is a resounding “no”!

Thermal power plants are still needed in the future and all aspects of power plant chemistry are more needed than ever. Can the materials sustain load cycling without major loss of lifetime? How is water chemistry to be adjusted in order to handle the frequent starts/stops? What are the chemical needs of the remaining power plant (turbine, flue gas side of boiler, flue gas cleaning equipment etc.) during stops of unknown duration? Environmental demands become continuously more stringent and flue gas cleaning equipment requires careful attention. New pollutants are identified and need consideration. Reliable chemical analyses in a relatively small and special branch of analytical chemistry are indispensable and the future will most probably see an extension to (micro)biological issues. New fuels are added on top, either greener or cheaper which have impacts on the combustion side and mineral products – all that is chemistry!

Contrary to these needs, we are losing power plant chemistry know-how at high speed – early retirement programmes and restricted recruitment of junior power plant chemists are to be mentioned in this context.

Suppliers are experiencing the same situation.

We are already seeing spectacular and dangerous failures at old and new power plants which are caused by lack of chemical management – the necessary power plant chemistry know-how was not available or not requested and one must remember that requests are only made, if it is known that support is needed.

Unfortunately the savings made at procurement never outweigh any major breakdowns and proper risk evaluation which is often taken into account only rudimentarily.
An example: Double sealing valves are imperative in an ion exchange desalination plant. Contamination of the boiler with hydrochloric acid cannot be tolerated at all and every risk must be eliminated at almost any cost.

But how will the procurer know, when he does not ask for appropriate chemical know-how, and the vendor out of ignorance, does not include double sealing  valves or omit them in order to reduce the price and win the order?
Again it has to be borne in mind that requests are only made, if it is known that support is needed.

What is the solution?
Education, education and education at all levels ranging from maintenance personnel over operators to top management is mandatory in order to operate our assets safely and keep their value.

We cannot expect more power plant chemists in the future so the general chemical understanding needs to be improved and a new generation of power plant chemists has to be brought up along with retirement of the old.

The fact that chemistry is virgin and even scary land for many makes the challenge even bigger, but there is no other way than the hard way.
It is a joint effort for all power plant chemist no matter whether their employer is a utility, an equipment supplier, an insurance company or a laboratory ...

We need to convoy our mutual interest, enthusiasm, know-how and experience regarding power plant chemistry to everybody – to those who need the information in their daily work and to those who are to be the future power plant chemists.

If we do not succeed we will see fatal failures, lost assets and blackouts in the future that nobody will find acceptable and the power industry then will be blamed for.

(Power plant chemical) knowledge can be lost in a minute, but it takes years to recover it – let’s use every occasion to preserve and distribute it generously.