Applied Thermo Fluid Process Modelling Research Unit (ATProM), a new research group, is building on an existing collaboration between State-owned power utility Eskom and the University of Cape Town (UCT) to provide engineers with up-to-date research and students with real-world experience while providing solutions to some of the challenges facing ageing energy infrastructure in South Africa.
“In South Africa, we have not only lost a lot of experience and knowledge but it is also a very tough time for capital intensive entities like Eskom to operate,” says ATProM head Wim Fuls.
He adds that financial pressures cause delays in regular maintenance and future strategic investment. Consequently, short- term crisis management replaces long-term plans in an attempt to keep up with a volatile energy market.
“ATProM can make substantial contributions into answering some of the current challenges that Eskom faces, such as operation at low load, or rapid plant turn-down. The online condition monitoring and other interventions ATProM provides will enable Eskom to operate plants with increased foresight into when and how components might deteriorate and require maintenance.”
ATProM was officially accredited at the end of last year to focus on the application of the fundamental principles of fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and heat and mass transfer to model industrial processes.
ATProM manager Priyesh Gosai notes that the research group allows engineers to analyse the operation and performance of individual components, subsystems or complete integrated plants so that the design and operation of systems can be improved to meet changing consumer demands. “It also means engineers can better detect changes that might indicate impending equipment or process degradation, thereby enabling preventive planned maintenance outages.”
ATProM founding member Professor Pieter Rousseau adds that the aim of the research group includes the development of a high-fidelity power plant engineering simulator. “This can serve as a platform for various other process-related studies.”
The research group is also working on network-based process models, which can be applied in studying the effects of low load and varying load operations in coal-fired power plants. The group is also working on monitoring methods to advance online process condition monitoring associated with major systems, subsystem and components of coal-fired power plants.
ATProM believes that research in this field will not only contribute to reduced operating costs and increase understanding of how to improve the flexibility of coal-fired power plants with the increased uptake of renewable energy onto the grid, but it will also result in skills development.
ATProM strives for applied research as opposed to basic research. While basic research is directed towards better understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena, ATProM is driven by the fundamental principles but framed by and aimed at real-world applications.
“This creates the perfect opportunity for training through research by enhancing and expanding the knowledge, skills and tools of process engineering practitioners, including the Eskom engineers who make up a large part of our postgraduate student body. We are also involved in the development and presentation of the new Postgraduate Diploma in Power Plant Engineering that is now offered at UCT,” says Rousseau.
From Eskom’s point of view, industrial coordinator between Eskom and ATProM Kapil Sukhnandan mentions that one of the key aims of this collaboration is to bridge the current skills gap within the utility by sending engineers to universities to conduct applied research within the power industry space.
“Engineers return to Eskom with the required qualifications, leadership thinking and skills to make a positive impact on the Eskom engineering business in terms of operational sustainability, design challenges and application of new technologies. This collaboration also aids Eskom in having direct access to expert academics to assist with its immediate operational challenges.”
According to Gosai, 20 students have graduated to date, a feat that would have been impossible without Eskom’s support. One such former student is Mu’azzam Kippie, who is currently working as an electrical engineer for Eskom.
He conducted research on optimising the opening characteristics of the guide vanes of a hydropower station in relation to the power output.
“Guide vanes are like ‘valves’ to control the water flow to the turbine. Opening or closing it has the effect of increasing or decreasing the power output,” Kippie explains.
He adds that getting hold of real-world data is not an easy task but being affiliated with Eskom helped a lot in that regard as the practical experience of the engineers and historical data could be used for verification.
Willie le Grange, who completed his thesis on developing computerised models of a coal-fired power station network’s main components, describes the interaction with Eskom engineers as one of the highlights of his degree. “Being able to have regular talks with the Eskom engineers on the inner workings of a power station was the edge that enabled me to successfully complete the degree. The academic world has a lot of solutions but sometimes the implementation or focus of these solutions can be vague. The collaboration between UCT and Eskom enables us to regularly shift the focus of the solutions to have a meaningful and lasting impact on today’s energy problems.”
ATProM is the latest development in a long-standing collaboration between Eskom and UCT. Eskom first funded the establishment of the Eskom Specialisation Centre in Energy Efficiency as a part of the Eskom Power Plant Engineering Institute (EPPEI) programme in 2012. “This programme aims to train engineers in the power sector through research and course-based training,” Gosai explains.
He adds that the Department of Mechanical Engineering then recruited Fuls and Rousseau, who have built UCT’s collective competency in process modelling for coal-fired power plants. ATProM is the next step in the partnership.
EPPEI head Louis Jestin believes that ATProM has a critical role to play in better understanding the physical processes of power generation.
“Having access to these models allows for better planning and greater flexibility, however, the most important aspect is the training of engineers,” he concludes.