The future of temperature control

Online Editor

What happens when you combine Industry 4.0 with a complete thermal system? Dennis Long explains how to deliver precise temperature control for green energy applications

Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, many countries have been working on long-term strategies and nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to reduce emissions. One strategy is to transform waste into usable fuels. Raven SR is a clean fuels company dedicated to achieving this, but the company uses a process that requires high temperatures and precise control to maintain efficiency and cost-effectiveness. To streamline its energy transformation process, industrial heating technology company Watlow provided extensive expertise in thermal system design, as well as Industry 4.0 control.

Achieving green energy is not without challenges

Raven SR transforms municipal solid waste, organic waste and methane into high-quality, clean hydrogen and synthetic fuels. At the heart of its approach is a CO2 reforming process that changes mixed feedstock and organic waste into products in an environmentally friendly way, without the need for combustion.

Although combustion is not used as part of the firm’s technology, precise thermal control plays a huge part in driving an efficient and safe process. There is already a clear connection between the operational targets that Raven SR is putting forward and the thermal content of the system. At higher temperatures, it’s possible to achieve 99.9% target output, but it requires running heaters at their maximum capacity for extended periods of time.

If those heaters fail, they are difficult to replace. As a result, not only is precise control of temperature needed, but the entire system also needs to be monitored for any signs of a problem, or for indications of degraded performance.

The power of leaning on Industry 4.0

Watlow designed a comprehensive thermal system to help Raven SR solve its challenge. The system provides an extraordinary range of temperature control through different components. This includes the high-temperature Multicell heater, which offers three major advantages: extreme process temperature capability; independent zone control for precise temperature uniformity; and loose fit design for easy insertion and removal.

Watlow also connected the system to other sensors for gas composition, flow and pressure. Using the Watconnect control panels, it could monitor all thermal and electrical characteristics to ensure proper process stability for the application.

The Internet of Things (IoT) “box” is at the heart of the system and includes hardware for connectivity, syncing data from eight F4T controllers with control loops across four Watconnect panels. Connectivity to the cloud via a cellular router allows further routing of data to other applications and devices, while a human machine interface (HMI) screen displays the total state of the system at any time using a custom-designed dashboard. These features allow for near real-time data logging and monitoring of system output.

This project is a great demonstration of Industry 4.0 at work. One of the chief principles of Industry 4.0 systems is to gather granular data for better system operation while avoiding unnecessary maintenance cycles. Over time, this data can also be used to understand system wear and part longevity, allowing engineers to have better insight into maintenance cycles and system inefficiencies – prolonging system lifespan.

Demonstrating future impact

A demonstration run for Raven’s SR2 reforming unit was conducted in September 2022 at Raven’s Fabrication and Machine plant in Benicia, California. This was the first connected Raven SR system in the field. For this demonstration, Watlow took advantage of the IoT controller’s cellular connection to the cloud, creating a mobile website that visitors could use to monitor a “mini-dashboard” that showed what the system was doing in real-time.

The demonstration showcased what the process would be capable of at full scale. Assuming that steam reforming (SR) facilities can be run at full capacity and deliver the same efficiency, what exactly would this mean for the future of this technology at scale?

First, it would represent a shift to more eco-friendly fuels. If formed from renewables, hydrogen itself is a clean-burning fuel that does not create any greenhouse gases. Fuels cells using hydrogen have undergone rapid development in recent years, and such fuels cells are providing an alternative to combustion engines in vehicles.

Second, for those cases where hydrocarbon fuels are still needed, SR facilities represent a way to create those fuels cleanly, and in just the right amounts needed instead of relying on the refinement and shipment of existing fossil fuels in the ground.

Third, it would be another way to tackle the increasing amount of organic waste that countries produce. Around 140 million tons of solid waste go into our landfills each year – roughly 133 billion pounds of this is food waste or similar organic waste. If even a fraction of this could be converted to useful fuel, it would make a huge impact on our landfills and the neighbourhoods surrounding them.

Transforming waste into fuel is one of the most significant ways to become resource efficient and contribute to the Paris Agreement’s targets. The work done by Raven SR is a crucial step in achieving clean energy and greater energy independence. Not only does the process prevent more waste ending up in landfills, but the company’s products can also be created locally and delivered directly to petrol stations without the need for long-distance transportation or pipelines.

By onboarding Watlow’s sensors, control architecture and dashboard, Raven SR’s engineers can capture data and use it proactively to keep system efficiency and uptime as high as possible for years to come.

Dennis Long is chief system designer at Watlow

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