Boilers obviously play an important role in the power generation industry, providing the mechanism to convert heat produced by burning fuel into steam that can be used to drive a turbine to generate electricity. But many other industries also use boilers to produce steam for a variety of purposes.
Boilers are commonly used for space heating in industrial facilities, including in factories, warehouses, and office buildings, as well as on university campuses and in large medical complexes. Boilers often provide hot water or steam, which is then distributed throughout buildings using radiators, convectors, or underfloor heating systems, to heat the air.
Many industrial processes utilize high-temperature steam for manufacturing operations. Boilers are regularly used for processes such as chemical manufacturing, food processing, paper production, and textile manufacturing. Boilers are also essential in petroleum refineries for processes like distillation, cracking, and reforming. Steam can also be used as a source of energy for industrial processes such as sterilization, cleaning, and drying.
In some cases, cogeneration (also called combined heat and power) systems are utilized to first generate electricity, and then, extraction steam is diverted for other purposes. This can greatly improve the overall system efficiency, saving money and reducing emissions.
Rentech Boiler Systems Inc. is one of the leading manufacturers of custom water tube and waste heat recovery boilers. The company is headquartered in Abilene, Texas, but sells its boilers around the world. “We have shipped boilers to about 35 countries in the world. So, we’re a company known globally,” Gerardo Lara, vice president of Fired Boiler Sales with Rentech, said as a guest on The POWER Podcast.
“I think our best feature at Rentech is that we build only custom solutions,” Jon Backlund, senior sales engineer with Rentech, said on the podcast. “We don’t have a catalog of standard sizes or standard designs. So, we will basically custom fit the application, and that means, we will read the specifications carefully, talk to the client about special needs, special fuels, any kind of space constraints, delivery issues, and design our system to fit exactly what they require.”
Rentech typically manufacturers boilers with capacities ranging from about 40,000 lb/hr to 600,000 lb/hr of steam. Moving boiler systems of that size—which can weigh up to half a million pounds—from a manufacturing facility to a site can be challenging, but Lara suggested Rentech is very proficient at the task. “There is a wide range of logistics that have to be studied, and yes, we live in the middle of Texas, but we certainly are very well versed on how to get a big boiler to Australia, if need be,” he said. “If we can do that, we certainly can get one to any state here within the U.S., or even Canada or Mexico.”
The fuel used to fire boilers can vary widely. Natural gas is very common in the U.S. because it is highly available and relatively inexpensive, but many other fuels are also suitable for industrial boilers. Backlund said there are a lot of “opportunity fuels” available in different locations. For example, landfill gas can be captured and utilized at many landfills. Likewise, biogas from brewing or sewage treatment processes are also usable.
Many experts believe hydrogen will be an important fuel as the world transitions to greater carbon-free energy resources. Backlund said hydrogen has been burned in boilers for decades. “There’s a lot of talk about equipping our boilers to burn hydrogen in the future, but this is not a new technology in the boiler business,” he said. “Those kinds of plants have been around for generations.” Where the hydrogen comes from and how it is produced may change, but today’s boilers are already capable of utilizing hydrogen efficiently.
Boilers are versatile and crucial components in industrial settings and power generation applications, providing the necessary thermal energy for a wide range of purposes. Manufacturers, such as Rentech and others, are capable of creating systems designed to meet the needs of customers in all types of industries.
To hear the full interview with Lara and Burklund, which includes additional discussion focused on project considerations, fuels, transport logistics, and more, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:
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—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).