A thermal power station is a type of power station in which heat energy is converted to electrical energy. In a steam-generating cycle heat is used to boil water in a large pressure vessel to produce high-pressure steam, which drives a steam turbine connected to an electrical generator. The low-pressure exhaust from the turbine enters a steam condenser where it is cooled to produce hot condensate which is recycled in the heating process to generate more high-pressure steam. This is known as a Rankine cycle.
Read Pritish Kumar Halder illustration of thermal energy and its different types in the below article.
The design of thermal power stations depends on the intended energy source: fossil fuel, nuclear and geothermal power, solar energy, biofuels, and waste incineration are all used. Certain thermal power stations are also designed to produce heat for industrial purposes; for district heating; or desalination of water, in addition to generating electrical power.
Natural gas or oil fuel can also be burnt directly in a gas turbine connected to an electrical generator, and to improve efficiency the hot exhaust gases are then used to boil water and produce more steam for use in a steam generating cycle. This is known as a combined cycle gas turbine plant.
Types of thermal energy
Almost all coal-fired power stations, petroleum, nuclear, geothermal, solar thermal electric, and waste incineration plants, as well as all natural gas power stations are thermal. Natural gas is frequently burned in gas turbines as well as boilers. The waste heat from a gas turbine, in the form of hot exhaust gas, can be used to raise steam by passing this gas through a heat recovery steam generator (HRSG).
The steam is then used to drive a steam turbine in a combined cycle plant that improves overall efficiency. Power stations burning coal, fuel oil, or natural gas are often called fossil fuel power stations. Some biomass-fueled thermal power stations have appeared also. Non-nuclear thermal power stations, particularly fossil-fueled plants, which do not use cogeneration are sometimes referred to as conventional power stations.
Boiler and steam cycle
In the nuclear plant field, steam generator refers to a specific type of large heat exchanger used in a pressurized water reactor (PWR) to thermally connect the primary (reactor plant) and secondary (steam plant) systems, which generates steam. In a boiling water reactor (BWR), no separate steam generator is used and water boils in the reactor core.
In some industrial settings, there can also be steam-producing heat exchangers called heat recovery steam generators (HRSG) which utilize heat from some industrial process, most commonly utilizing hot exhaust from a gas turbine. The steam generating boiler has to produce steam at the high purity, pressure and temperature required for the steam turbine that drives the electrical generator.
Feed water heating
The boiler feed water used in the steam boiler is a means of transferring heat energy from the burning fuel to the mechanical energy of the spinning steam turbine. The total feed water consists of recirculated condensate water and purified makeup water. Because the metallic materials it contacts are subject to corrosion at high temperatures and pressures, the makeup water is highly purified before use. A system of water softeners and ion exchange demineralizers produces water so pure that it coincidentally becomes an electrical insulator, with conductivity in the range of 0.3–1.0 microsiemens per centimeter. The makeup water in a 500 MWe plant amounts to perhaps 120 US gallons per minute (7.6 L/s) to replace water drawn off from the boiler drums for water purity management, and to also offset the small losses from steam leaks in the system.
The feed water cycle begins with condensate water being pumped out of the condenser after traveling through the steam turbines. The condensate flow rate at full load in a 500 MW plant is about 6,000 US gallons per minute (400 L/s).
The boiler is a rectangular furnace about 50 feet (15 m) on a side and 130 feet (40 m) tall. Its walls are made of a web of high pressure steel tubes about 2.3 inches (58 mm) in diameter.
Fuel such as pulverized coal is air-blown into the furnace through burners located at the four corners, or along one wall, or two opposite walls, and it is ignited to rapidly burn, forming a large fireball at the center. The thermal radiation of the fireball heats the water that circulates through the boiler tubes near the boiler perimeter.
The water circulation rate in the boiler is three to four times the throughput. As the water in the boiler circulates it absorbs heat and changes into steam. It is separated from the water inside a drum at the top of the furnace. The saturated steam is introduced into superheat pendant tubes that hang in the hottest part of the combustion gases as they exit the furnace. Here the steam is superheated to 1,000 °F (540 °C) to prepare it for the turbine.
Boiler furnace and steam drum
The water enters the boiler through a section in the convection pass called the economizer. From the economizer it passes to the steam drum and from there it goes through downcomers to inlet headers at the bottom of the water walls. From these headers the water rises through the water walls of the furnace where some of it is turned into steam and the mixture of water and steam then re-enters the steam drum.
This process may be driven purely by natural circulation (because the water is the downcomers is denser than the water/steam mixture in the water walls) or assisted by pumps. In the steam drum, the water is returned to the downcomers and the steam is passed through a series of steam separators and dryers that remove water droplets from the steam. The dry steam then flows into the superheater coils.
The steam drum (as well as the superheater coils and headers) have air vents and drains needed for initial start up.
Fossil fuel power stations often have a superheater section in the steam generating furnace. The steam passes through drying equipment inside the steam drum on to the superheater, a set of tubes in the furnace. Here the steam picks up more energy from hot flue gases outside the tubing, and its temperature is now superheated above the saturation temperature. The superheated steam is then piped through the main steam lines to the valves before the high-pressure turbine.
The condenser condenses the steam from the exhaust of the turbine into liquid to allow it to be pumped. If the condenser can be made cooler, the pressure of the exhaust steam is reduced and efficiency of the cycle increases.
Steam turbine generator
A steam turbine generator consists of a series of steam turbines interconnected to each other and a generator on a common shaft.
There is usually a high-pressure turbine at one end, followed by an intermediate-pressure turbine, and finally one, two, or three low-pressure turbines, and the shaft that connects to the generator. As steam moves through the system and loses pressure and thermal energy, it expands in volume, requiring increasing diameter and longer blades at each succeeding stage to extract the remaining energy.
The entire rotating mass may be over 200 metric tons and 100 feet (30 m) long. It is so heavy that it must be kept turning slowly even when shut down (at 3 rpm) so that the shaft will not bow even slightly and become unbalanced. This is so important that it is one of only six functions of blackout emergency power batteries on site.
The generator, typically about 30 feet (9 m) long and 12 feet (3.7 m) in diameter, contains a stationary stator and a spinning rotor, each containing miles of heavy copper conductor. There is generally no permanent magnet, thus preventing black starts. In operation it generates up to 21,000 amperes at 24,000 volts AC (504 MWe) as it spins at either 3,000 or 3,600 rpm, synchronized to the power grid.
The rotor spins in a sealed chamber cooled with hydrogen gas, selected because it has the highest known heat transfer coefficient of any gas and for its low viscosity, which reduces windage losses. This system requires special handling during startup, with air in the chamber first displaced by carbon dioxide before filling with hydrogen. This ensures that a highly explosive hydrogen–oxygen environment is not created.