August 24, 2011

Students offer ideas to address utility plant issue

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Sometimes the difference between engineering a solution on paper and engineering one in the “real world” can be vast. Southern Illinois University Carbondale engineering students, however, get a taste of that every year during their senior design course.

Most recently, a group of students worked with a major electricity supplier to help solve an issue at its peak-use plant in a small, Southern Illinois town.

The six students and their professors worked with Ameren Missouri to improve the reliability and performance of generators at the Pinckneyville Energy Center.  For two semesters, the multi-disciplinary team defined, researched and ultimately offered multiple solutions to the issue, which involved efficiently cooling air bound for the plant’s jet engine-like generators.

Carl Spezia, associate professor of technology, coordinated a team that included Fran Harackiewicz and Kay Purcell, professor and visiting instructor of electrical and computer engineering, respectively, and Alan Weston, associate professor of mechanical engineering and energy processes.

Five of the students, Brice Leckrone, of Hampton, Va.; Keith Rancuret, of Danville; Lin Lee, of Carbondale; Jonathan Kash, of Scheller; and Joseph Bisogani, of Arlington Heights, are mechanical engineering majors.  The sixth member of the student team, Brett Lohmeier, of Carbondale; is an electrical engineering major.

Spezia said creating a multi-disciplinary team to work the problem from different angles also is a reflection of how engineers work in a real-world setting.

“Together, they could simulate the actions of a real architectural engineering firm solving a problem for a client,” Spezia said.

The senior design class emphasizes a real world point of view from its very start, with various companies and industry offering up actual challenges to the team of students. The problems are not simple ones; they must be challenging enough to take up two semesters, which gives the students something to really sink their teeth into it, Spezia said.

During the first semester of the class, students typically take time to narrowly identify and define the problem.  They also create various multi-disciplinary teams assembled with the members’ particular strengths in mind.  By semester’s end, the students, coached by faculty members, come up with an array of possible solutions to the company’s problem.

During the class’ second semester, the actual design work begins, Spezia said.

“They take the proposals and turn them into a design and sometimes, depending on the project, an actual piece of hardware,” he said.

The latest team of students began working with Ameren Missouri at its Pinckneyville facility in October. The so-called “peaking plant” comes on line to supplement the power grid during peak-use periods, to fill in if another facility is down or during opportunities to sell power, Spezia said.  Its four natural gas-powered turbine generators are very similar to jet engines found on aircraft.

The team gathered data on the issue, which involved finding better, more efficient ways to pre-chill the air running through the generators.  Cooler air is denser, and helps the generators make electricity more efficiently, using less fuel to create more power.  But the chillers tasked with cooling the air struggled during transitional temperature periods between seasons, running inefficiently with potential damage caused by frequent cycling between on and off.

“We wanted to prevent damage to the system and then also see if we could improve the overall efficiency,” Spezia said.  “Ameren gave us great support in terms of providing data and documentation and the students were very well skilled.  They had to figure out how to modify the control system with the least cost, because this is a real-world application.”

The students worked on the project for months, running thermodynamic analyses and examining specifications and data.  In the spring, the team produced a report that explored several possible solutions to the problem involving flow rates of air and water through the refrigeration system.

Ameren was pleased with the students’ efforts.

“This project was a great example of how a company and university can work together to achieve mutual benefits,” says Ozzie Lomax, manager, Gas Turbine and Renewable Generation, for Ameren Missouri. “In working on the project, the SIUC students gained experience designing a real-world engineering solution, while Ameren Missouri benefited from work that would otherwise have required additional internal resources or outside consultants.”

Although Ameren Missouri has not yet determined whether it will implement the proposed solution, the necessary evaluation is under way.

Lomax says the benefits of partnerships such as the one between Ameren Missouri and SIUC go beyond the benefits of any individual project.

“The electric utility industry is highly technical, and at the same time, our work force is aging,” he said.  “Therefore, it is vital that we develop a pool of well-trained young engineers who have the knowledge and skills to step in as our older employees retire.”

Spezia said the students gained invaluable experience, as well as an important resume enhancement that will help them when they graduate.

“They are making the transition from the classroom to the real world and this will help them be prepared for the challenges they will face,” he said.