Plants Thirst for Energy Efficiency

Current economic conditions aren’t quenching efforts to achieve savings.

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

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Applying a coating to the blades that would reduce friction and increase wear resistance could offer significant savings. According to Cook, U.S. government calculations show that a modest increase in pump efficiency resulting from use of these nanocoatings could reduce U.S. industrial energy usage by 31 trillion Btus annually by 2030, a savings of $179 million/year.

Figure 3 -- Nanocoating: A 2 micron
to 3-micron-thick coating appears as
thin dark strip on steel substrate,
which looks mottled because of carbon
Source: Ames Laboratory.

The coating that Cook is investigating is a boron-aluminum-magnesium (AlMgB14) ceramic alloy that reportedly cuts friction by at least an order of magnitude compared to an uncoated surface (Figure 3).

Meanwhile, four projects at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Oak Ridge, Tenn, to improve industrial energy efficiency have won funding from DOE’s Industrial Technologies Program.

The potential is huge, considering that the industrial sector accounts for about one-third of total U.S. energy consumption. “Working with industry, we are confident that we can reduce the amount of energy consumed and increase productivity through new technologies,” says Craig Blue, manager of the Industrial Technologies Program for ORNL.

One project aims to develop advanced materials and designs to boost the efficiency of biomass-fired boilers by reducing the corrosion rate of superheater tubes. The second, which includes ExxonMobil among its partners, focuses on developing a field-deployable system for friction stir welding, a process that uses 80% less energy than standard welding, to cut costs of on-site oil and gas pipeline construction.

Researchers worldwide also are focusing on achieving better energy efficiency in that key element of chemical manufacturing, the reactor. For instance, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NOSR), The Hague, is partnering with BASF Nederland, DSM Research, Lummus Technology and Shell Global Solutions International on foam reactor research.

NOSR scientist Charl Stemmet is leading the project. He’s investigating a new structured support for catalysts for use in gas/liquid reactors. This involves a highly porous solid foam material that has up to 97% open space available — the larger the surface area, the greater the production per unit reactor volume.

Stemmet first examined the flow behavior of gas and liquid and experimentally determined the design equations. He then compared the foam reactor with the current standard for gas/liquid reactions using a solid catalyst — a so-called packed bed of stacked catalyst particles.

The foam reactor requires a volume 1.5 times larger than that of the packed bed for the same gas and liquid flows and same production rate. However, the energy efficiency of the foam reactor is ten times higher than that of the packed bed, he says.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's editor at large. You can e-mail him at

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