Inexpensive sensor reduces Steam Plant’s natural gas use

Improving natural gas efficiency provides an economic benefit, while also increasing sustainability and reducing climate change. UC Riverside’s Power Plant currently uses a $50,000 machine to analyze the energy content of natural gas. Winston Chung Global Energy Center researcher Chan Seung Park and Partho Roy along with their research team developed a $100 sensor to measure the content of gas coming into water heaters and other gas-powered devices. 

The project is a cost effective operation with the steam plant using an intelligent and closed-loop control of a combustion system based on the UC-developed fuel quality sensor signal. To do this, the team developed an algorithm that allows them to predict energy content levels in natural gas fuel quality. The sensor is developed, calibrated, and tested in the lab using the wide range of natural gas mixtures. Operation of the combustion efficiency improvement project is based on the real-time fuel quality sensor, more specifically Wobbe Index (WI), a representation of the heating value. WI is a natural gas quality indicator and the sensor is designed to estimate the WI of natural gas mixtures. The measuring efficiency is tested in the lab using multiple predetermined known natural gas mixtures.

The steam plant currently uses Oxygen Trim, where a probe is installed in the boiler fuel exit for measuring content of the fuel gas. The oxygen content information is then used to adjust the air and fuel rates to improve energy efficiency. This current system is too large and expensive for most business and households. With the current machine, there are also improvements to be made to the effectiveness of the technology in terms of lifetime, effectiveness, and accuracy of the sensor.

If natural gas combustion efficiency increases, the use of natural gas will go down. The goal for the team is to produce the sensor under $100. By implementing the $100 predictive measurement sensor, business and households are provided a more cost efficient solution to a global problem. With its use, this sensor will help reduce the cost associated with natural gas, reduce greenhouse gas emission, and potentially reduce NOx emissions. The developed sensor will be the enabling technology to use RNG as an alternative fuel to reduce GHG emission.

This project was made possible thanks to the cooperation of UCR facility team members and the Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI).