Water, raw aluminum produce steam, hydrogen, alumina

All subsystems of a technology innovation project called Enerclean are communicating through the centralized supervision system, and all are connected via OPC Unified Architecture. The project is still in the experimental stage, but the conditions for its industrialization are very good.

By Daniele Suffritti November 6, 2015

Production of hydrogen and electricity is possible at zero emissions thanks to the combustion of aluminum. OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) helped integrate systems.

A number of companies participated in the technology innovation project called Enerclean, coordinated by the department of science and engineering, University of Modena and Reggio, Italy.

The project involves the production of clean energy and hydrogen through the natural process of combustion of aluminum powder on contact with water. The goal is to get a high efficiency energy system and near-zero environmental impact. 

The project uses raw aluminum and water to produce steam, which drives a turbine, and the "waste" product is hydrogen and alumina. Hydrogen is stored for vehicles powered by hydrogen (via a fuel cell); the second is fully recyclable to produce new aluminum.

The project involves the construction of an energy system based on the use of the products and by-products of the combustion of a solid fuel in water-saturated environment that can achieve integrated and simultaneous generation of four secondary energy sources, giving rise to a hydrogen and steam combined heat power application. 

Prototype, continuous power

The project, still experimental, gave the desired results, and the system prototype was successfully completed. The group of participating companies was coordinated by professor Ing. Massimo Milani, Department of Engineering Sciences and Methods Faculty of Engineering, received specific development objective, skills, know-how, and market technologies.

Main system components are a milling machine that provides a continuous power cycle, producing aluminum powder through special cutters that. When properly controlled, it produces the fine dust needed to fuel the combustion chamber. Pressure is injected into the water, and combustion produces the steam needed to power a 4 MW turbine. The boiler management process is automated by a programmable logic controller (PLC). There is the waste recovery system, consisting of a hydrogen storage system for fuel cell systems and alumina powder for aluminum producers.

Atmospheric emissions equal zero because the process produces only steam.

All subsystems are connected through the standard OPC UA communications. It was necessary that the various partners use components that can communicate at all levels with maximum transparency, with maximum performance and maximum safety. The supervisory system, also based on OPC UA, easily adapted to the changes that an experimental project might require.

The management system allows local and remote control of the production process of aluminum powder, storage, combustion, turbine and alternator, hydrogen storage, and alumina products. 

Three subsystems

The supervisor provided a redundant server for data acquisition from three subsystems:

  1. Powder feed system
  2. Boiler and turbine
  3. Hydrogen storage and alumina recovery.

All systems were made by their respective companies-project partners who have used their know-how to achieve the goal. Two different company control systems were used for the powders and power cutters as well as for boiler, turbine, storage and retrieval systems, and 10 connected PLCs.

All subsystems are communicating through the centralized supervision system, and all are connected via OPC UA.

  • CNC milling dust control
  • PLC1 = boiler inputs
  • PLC2 = boiler outputs
  • PLC3 = cistern and solids separator
  • PLC4 = exit gas separator
  • PLC 5 = hydrogen storage
  • PLC6 = turbine contour
  • PLC7 = hot pit contour
  • PLC8 = outline getter
  • PLC9 = separator, liquid outlet
  • PLC10 = cooling system 

Client-server architecture

The central attendant is based on client-server architecture. The server is connected as a client local control station, which serves as the OPC Server. The dedicated OPC UA platform connector allows connectivity between supervision and local OPC servers, integrated directly to the PLC.

The supervisor then acquires as a central server in real time, all functional parameters representing the subsystems through the numerous pages that represent the synoptic system. The central attendant acquires more than 8,000 analog variables (tags), distributed in various systems of local control. In addition, there are about 2,000 digital alarms that provide a detailed diagnostics system.

Locally, there is a client station supervisor, and an OPC client connected to the central server. Field communications take place solely via OPC UA supported by the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system.

Essential for the development of the experimental system, monitoring, recording, and analysis of all sensitive data, such as pressure, flow rates, temperatures, humidity levels, etc., are recorded in an SQL Server database system allowing an accurate analysis of the functional parameters necessary for engineers of the department of science and engineering for the development of the prototype system. This historical analysis and functionally integrated reporting led to a fundamental analysis working model.

In addition, the central supervision system is web-based connecting remote stations, via HTML5, and Web access to the system in full safety.

"We needed a system that could connect to its own data at any level," says professor Milani. "That’s why we focused on the OPC UA standard, able to be managed either by control devices and telemetry systems and supervision, and in the future for any further level integrated systems," such as enterprise resource planning systems used by the operators.

The prototype system was put into operation, and the first results were very positive. The system must be perfected to be industrialized, but the conceptual idea, combined with a future drive systems oriented for hydrogen, should offer good prospects for development. Production of thermoelectric energy and hydrogen, which is so clean and virtually without waste or polluting emissions, might be the way of the future.

Combustion system, usable wastes

The combustion system is based on aluminum and water, renewable fuels, and products without risk (for example, compared to traditional systems based on gas, petroleum, and uranium). The process is also nonpolluting. It does not produce CO2 (zero emission), and waste products are hydrogen and alumina, which are totally recovered for industrial uses. The hydrogen stored is expected to supply fuel cells for cars, while alumina is a mineral often used in industry and currently produces for the market using the so-called "Bayer method."

Currently the project is still in the experimental stage, but the conditions for its industrialization are very good.

– Ing. Daniele Suffritti is a consultant at Progrea. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, mhoske@cfemedia.com

Key concepts

  • An innovative process generates steam and electricity without harmful wastes.
  • OPC Unified Architecture is used to easily integrate subsystems and higher level systems.

Consider this

Combustion that doesn’t produce C02 results in alumina for processing and hydrogen for fuel cells.

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