Using virtual reality to design and simulate power plant performance

21st February 2013

There has never been more interest in environmentally-friendly power generation technologies such as photovoltaic, wind, hydroelectric and biogas. However, they are complex to design and maintain. As Sean Ottewell discovers, new virtual reality (VR) software from Germany could change all that.

Picture the scene: the design engineer's head is spinning after analysing data on the computer for hours on end. Designing a hydroelectric power station, she would like to know what the pressures, temperatures and fluid flows will be in the facility. She may simulate them with simulation software. However, this only delivers vast columns of numbers or a one-dimensional representation which will have to be analysed bit by bit: a slow and a laborious task.

From now on, however, things should get easier. Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg, Germany, have developed a method that visualises the processes inside energy conversion plants - including photovoltaic, wind, biogas and hydroelectric power stations.

To do this, they have coupled 3D plant engineering and simulation results with a virtual reality (VR) program developed at the IFF.

"A special software tool has enabled us to visualise all the motion sequences for the first time ever - at just the push of a button," explains Matthias Gohla, manager of the process and plant engineering business unit.

Arrows that move through the VR model show engineers the direction in which and speed at which fluids and gases flow through a plant. Coloured markings indicate potential weak points such as areas where critical temperatures, deposits or erosions could occur. Is there a potential for collisions when the plant components are moving? The virtual insights facilitate engineering and should therefore ensure that plants become more efficient and have lower emissions (Fig. 1).

"Our VR model also helps plant operators in day-to-day operations," says project manager Martin Endig. For instance, extensive documentation may be implemented in the system. Instead of hunting through thick instruction manuals for desired information, a technician merely needs to click on the appropriate representation to obtain data on a certain plant component. Moreover, personnel can be trained to handle a plant before it is operational. Even critical situations can be simulated without endangering employees.

In general, the business unit is working in process and plant engineering, designing for example cogeneration systems in the 1-10MW range. "In this, we are able to draw on years of experience with fluidised bed technology and provide future plant operators technological solutions for complex plant systems with optimal control," notes Endig.

It was during research that the idea of integrating simulation and VR technologies came about.

"The idea was to take the results of a simulation produced in the normal way and then to develop a new algorithm in order to interpret the data for a 3D visualisation of the technical process. For the VR-based visualisation we apply an existing in-house VR tool, although other VR tools can also be used. So it isn't a direct integration of simulation functionalities within in a VR tool. But it means that our process engineers can interpret the technical process based on a new way of visualising the simulation results."

Currently, the IFF developers are working on another tool that notifies operators when a component is due for maintenance.


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