How waste steam is helping firms to go green

Written by: Chris Armitage | Published:
Heliex Power chief executive Chris Armitage

New technology is helping waste steam to 'go green', explains Heliex Power chief executive Chris Armitage

Most people don’t give much thought to steam. Few realise that the vapour, which they most often see coming out of a boiled kettle, is integral to manufacturing many of the goods in their homes.

Yet it is ubiquitous in industry, driving a variety of processes and powering equipment.

Even fewer still realise that it comes in different forms. At the top end is ‘dry’ or ‘superheated’ steam, which is high-temperature, high-pressure and invisible to the eye – more expensive to produce and manage, it is almost exclusively used in turbines for power-generation applications.

Further down the scale is ‘wet’, or ‘saturated’, steam – a faint white plume of lower temperature and pressure vapour. Wet steam contains water molecules, making it unsuitable for use in turbines – in fact, it destroys them, by degrading the thin metal blades.

However, it is used extensively in large quantities across many industries for heating, drying and a multitude of other tasks.

Steam’s untapped potential

The amount of unused saturated steam is vast. Analysis suggests that more than 40,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of energy is lost globally every year through waste steam. It is also estimated that up to 50% of industrial energy usage is eventually released as waste heat – enough to power 28 billion homes.

It is little wonder, then, that finding a way of harnessing the latent power of wet steam became the preoccupation of top researchers at City, University of London.

For more than four decades, they worked on a solution to the problem, eventually finding a way. The research was spun out of the university by Heliex Power in 2010 – a company based in East Kilbride, on the outskirts of Glasgow – opening up huge possibilities for businesses to save money on their energy costs and drive efficiency.

Turbines have typically been used to harness steam – but they can only take ‘dry’ steam, which is superheated, high-pressure and expensive to produce. Wet steam on the other hand is ubiquitous and cheap but full of water particles and erodes turbines’ blades, making it unusable for existing machinery.

The research undertaken by professors Ian Smith and Nikola Stosic at City has completely changed that: we’re now able to harness the potential of the steam being produced by the vast majority of industrial processes, in a manner that makes the economics stack up. They brought the concept to professor Dan Wright MBE, the founder of Heliex Power, after a geothermal power station in Australia expressed some interest in using this new Steam Expander System.

From drawing board to shop floor

Taking the concept from academic theory to commercially viable product, Heliex began undertaking thousands of hours of research, eventually beginning to sell its Generator Set (GenSet), as the technology became known, in 2014.

Since then, adoption of the GenSet has been steadily picking up, with more than 50 units in the field clocking up more than 120,000 hours of operating time so far.

With so many industries producing plentiful amounts of steam, the technology has been used in a variety of different sectors. You can find Heliex GenSets in a glass factory on the outskirts of Milan, as part of a district heating scheme in Austria and in biomass facilities throughout the UK.

Essentially, the technology can be employed in any process that uses steam directly or uses a steam system as a heating medium. Its wide range of potential applications and the sheer amount of steam produced by all of these industries means the technology’s potential is vast.

It transcends sectors: so far we have seen it used in process industries ranging from steel and chemical manufacturing all the way through to agriculture and distilling. The technology’s wide variety of possible applications is part of its huge potential.

How does it work?

The most obvious question to ask is that regarding how it works. Achieving this energy-recovery feat stumped scientific minds for centuries, so there must be a big secret behind the technology that makes what was previously thought to be impossible, possible?

It is deceptively simple. The crucial bit that makes it all happen is the screw expander, which has two rotors entwined with each other.

The profile of the rotors is the important part, and the two of them sit within a casing and are supported on bearings at each end. Steam is expanded through that expander and, in doing so, the rotors turn and there is an output at one end. This is connected to a generator to produce electricity.

Heliex estimates that the potential market for its first system is in excess of £70 billion, with demand from across the globe.

The company already exports from its base in East Kilbride to France, Poland and The Netherlands, while research from a possible partner in China suggests that a million of its systems are required in that country alone.

After booking £900,000 in revenue in 2014/2015, Heliex grew orders to £4.2 million last year. The company expects sales to increase steadily in the years ahead, as more industries become aware of what the GenSet technology can achieve.

Payback on the machine is typically around three years, but can be as little as one – thereafter, businesses can use the machine as an alternative source of income.

When we first ran numbers for market analysis, they were so huge we had trouble believing them. There are so many businesses out there that could benefit from this technology, but the majority don’t know it exists yet.

But once they see the economic, efficiency and environmental benefits, Heliex is confident more companies will look at how they can make the most of their existing steam systems.

New tech to drive further efficiency

The company’s growth is also expected to be bolstered by its three recently launched complementary technologies. The AirComp, SteamDrive and SteamComp all feature Heliex’s innovative steam expander technology and are aimed at helping companies turn what would normally be waste into something useful.

The SteamDrive will allow a steam expander to drive machinery more efficiently and cost-effectively than by using an electrical motor.

Meanwhile, the AirComp uses a Heliex steam-expander system to drive high-efficiency compressors, providing air. This is up to 18% more efficient than using an electrical motor, delivering savings in excess of £80,000 per year for a standard 100kW machine.

The SteamComp, meanwhile, uses the original steam-expander system in reverse. It allows plant operators to re-energise steam that has already been through a process, instead of having to condense and evaporate it again.

The SteamComp is already being deployed by a packaging manufacturer on its production lines and has potential applications in industries such as pulp and paper, tyres, food processing, and chemicals.

New ways of turning waste into energy are being developed all the time. For our part, we’re firmly committed to R&D, constantly looking for new ways to help businesses save costs, be more efficient, and enhance their sustainability.

The fact that our technologies are only in their infancy is exciting and, if anything, it proves that there is still a great deal to come in steam.

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