Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 3/2018

Chemistry in Power Plants – Development and Prospects

Was everything really better in the old days? Hardly, but many things were different. What did chemistry in power plants look like in the past, how did it develop and how will the development continue? I would like to embark on these considerations together with you and start with a review of the early 1980s. The main activities were process engineering support for water and waste water treatment plants, monitoring and evaluation of water-steam cycles, examination and evaluation of input materials and lubricants, and dealing with environmental protection issues. Online monitoring was usually limited to the measurement of temperature, pH and conductivity. The measuring cycles for monitoring of the water-steam cycle took place approximately weekly and the staffing of the chemistry department was relatively good, at least from today’s point of view. Almost 100 % of the analyses required for the individual power plants were carried out in the plant’s own laboratory. The analysis equipment routinely used included photometers and atomic absorption spectrometry (AAS), and automatic sample delivery was not standard. The documentation and evaluation of the analysis results was carried out by analogue methods. Laboratory data processing and data evaluation by computer were still a distant dream.

The Large Combustion Plants Ordinance came into force in Germany in 1983 and was a consequence of the extensive forest damage that first occurred in the 1970s. It contained the first ambitious limit values for flue gas components and led to massive retrofitting of flue gas desulphurization systems in coal-fired power plants. Flue gas desulphurization chemistry presented a very special challenge for the power plant chemists: new analytical methods were used and changes were made both to personnel and to laboratory equipment. Ion chromatography, automatic samplers and electronic data processing, for example, became standard features in the power plant laboratory.

Retrofitting of measures to reduce NOx was particularly challenging for the experts at coal-fired power plants.

The deregulation of the electricity market at the end of the 1990s hit the industry hard. Savings were called for. Nothing fundamental has changed since then. In the field of power plant chemistry, reductions in staffing levels and optimization of analysis processes were used in particular as a means of achieving this goal.

These measures have led to a situation in which only a few young chemists have been recruited in recent years and the average age in some chemistry departments is now over 50. There is a pressing need for action here. The challenges in the field of power plant chemistry have not lessened. Environmental requirements are constantly increasing. The LCP BREF process will result in stricter requirements for flue gas treatment and treatment of the waste water from the flue gas treatment system. The changing electricity market is increasingly leading to frequent load changes and an increased number of start-ups and shut-downs, which in turn necessitates adjustments to the operation of chemical systems and suitable preservation measures.

While power plant chemists have so far received very good support from the experts at the manufacturing companies in dealing with their problems, it is unclear how long that support can continue into the future. Manufacturers are gradually withdrawing from the power plant business.

An essential task for the future is to keep the body of know-how which has been established so far in the field of power plant chemistry up to date and to make it available to the employees of the coming generations.

VGB provides a good platform for exchange of information between professionals, access to the network of power plant chemists, the development of standards and the establishment of expertise for junior staff. I would like to invite all the experts concerned from the member companies to become involved in VGB’s work now and in the future, so that this successful work can be continued.