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Industry Pursues Flexible Combination of Energy Sources


The road to a green-energy future is a long and winding one. Much progress has been made in using renewable resources such as wind, but many twists and turns lie ahead. Natural gas will continue to have a role to play, and small modular reactors (SMRs) offer energy-source flexibility and overcome the disadvantages of conventional nuclear plants. As the energy industry plots optimal paths forward, it must take advantage of innovations ranging from sophisticated CAD tools and digital twins to accurate, reliable data-acquisition systems.

Wind technology has undoubtedly made significant gains, employing advanced control systems, improved aerodynamic designs, and advanced materials that enable larger turbine blades. With progress continuing, the U.S. Department of Energy expects wind turbines to provide 20% of U.S. electricity needs by 2030.

Nevertheless, natural gas remains a key contributor to maintaining a stable, reliable grid. Gas turbines can come online quickly when renewable sources falter. In addition, on-site gas turbines can also serve combined heat and power (CHP) applications (with gas-turbine exhaust providing heat) to which renewable energy sources might not readily adapt. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that a decentralized CHP unit that avoids distribution losses can achieve efficiencies of over 80%. Furthermore, efforts are underway to minimize carbon emissions from the turbines—either by using zero-carbon or low-carbon fuels or post-combustion carbon capture.

Gas turbines could increasingly face competition from SMRs, which can also provide backup for renewable sources and quickly be deployed to remote areas with limited grid access. SMRs can be factory-manufactured, with final assembly occurring at the target location. Their developers employ digital-twin representations of their SMRs for simulation, integration, testing, monitoring, maintenance, and optimization to ensure safe, reliable operation.

In addition to helping optimize a single energy system such as an SMR, digital twins will also have a pivotal role to play in the complex effort to integrate disparate centralized and distributed traditional and renewable energy sources. SkyQuest Technology Consulting, in a recent report, estimates that the electrical digital-twin market is growing at a CAGR of 36.3% and will reach $121.48 billion in 2030 as utilities and grid operators adopt the technology to manage distributed resource integration, perform grid modernization and streamlining, and optimize operational efficiency.

Vast data sets

Whether or not digital-twin methodologies are employed in a wind-turbine, gas-turbine, or SMR project, successful development, deployment, and ongoing maintenance will require tremendous amounts of data from thermocouples, accelerometers, strain gauges, and other sensors. Gas turbines, for example, require extensive temperature measurements to optimize efficiency, and an effective test may require hundreds or thousands of thermocouple measurement channels. Gas turbines also require measurements of parameters such as flow, pressure, strain, rotation, and vibration.

For wind turbines, the increasingly large blades require extensive structural, fatigue, and modal tests to identify resonant frequencies and ensure these resonant frequencies lie outside the range of frequencies the turbine will experience in regular operation. Such tests require extensive use of strain gauges and accelerometers. Thermocouples can also be required because resonant frequencies depend on temperature.

SMRs also require extensive temperature, strain, vibration, and pressure measurements—perhaps thousands of channels during development and hundreds in the field to support preventive maintenance and optimize digital-twin instances. The radioactive environment of the SMR can complicate measurements such as pressure, which can be inferred from a strain gauge affixed to a pressurized radioactive steel pipe.

Data-acquisition instruments

To assist with acquiring and analyzing the vast amounts of data generated by turbine and SMR tests, AMETEK Programmable Power's VTI Instruments brand provides a wide range of high performance data acquisition equipment designed to scale from small to very large systems. All VTI Instrument's products support the LXI standard, allowing instruments and systems to work well together and permitting the instruments to be located close to the system under test, keeping analog signal leads short while providing connection to a host computer over low-cost Ethernet cable. They also support the IEEE 1588 Precision Time Protocol time-stamping standard, which allows clock synchronization of different data-acquisition systems over the Internet.

Specific products include the EX1401 16-channel isolated thermocouple and voltage measurement instrument and the EX1403A 16-channel bridge and strain gauge measurement instrument, both of which feature built-in self-test functionality, IEEE-1588 synchronization, power over Ethernet (PoE) capability, and a compact 1U half-rack form factor. The company also offers the EMX-4250 and EMX-4350 dynamic signal analyzer instruments for vibration testing, which features maximum channel counts of 4 to 16 channels and maximum sample rates of 204Ksa/sec to 625Ksa/sec in a PXIe form factor. All VTI products provide the performance and reliability to ensure success in all your power and energy test applications.

For more information on the growing energy segments mentioned in this post, please see our recently published white papers:

Enhancing Gas Turbine Performance with Critical Test Instruments

Advanced Data-Acquisition is Critical to Developing Today’s State-of-the-Art Wind Turbines

Small Modular Reactors Demand Advanced Data-Acquisition

For a quick overview of all these topics, see our infographicDiverse Energy Sources Team Up to Provide Reliable Power. And for more on specific test products, visit our Energy and Power Generation industry page.