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Power Plants

How the Rankine Cycle Produces

Electrical Energy from Heat

Michael Kinney

October 12, 2010

Audience Analysis

This article is targeted to students in a technical major, but not necessarily an engineer,
such as a student in our English 202C class. The goal is for the audience to achieve
understanding of the rankine cycle and how this process is used in power plants to
produce usable, electric energy from fossil fuels.


Why are Power Plants important?

Power plants ultimately convert the energy in
fossil fuels into usable electric energy; this
cheap electricity production is absolutely
essential to our society’s way of life. In fact,
fossil fuel power plants account for about 70%
of the electricity production in the United
Figure 1: U.S. Energy Production, Energy
How is Energy Conversion accomplished? Institute of America.
Power Plants accomplish this relatively
efficient conversion of fossil fuels to electricity through a thermodynamic process known
as the rankine cycle. The rankine cycle is only about 60% efficient but it is the most
effective method we have of electricity production.

The Rankine Cycle

The rankine cycle uses a heat source, in
this case a fossil fuel, to superheat
water into high-pressure vapor,
effectively converting the heat energy
into mechanical energy. A turbine,
attached to a generator, recaptures the
mechanical energy into electrical
energy. There are four main steps in
the rankine cycle:

1. Pump
2. Boiler
3. Turbine
4. Condenser
Figure 2: The 4 major steps in the rankine cycle
1. The Pump
The pump is the heart of the rankine cycle. It
pumps water through the boiler, turbine, and
condenser. Thus, the cycle can continue
indefinitely, because the same water is reused.
The pump is the smallest part of the rankine
Figure 3: The pump forces water
through the rest of the cycle

2. The Boiler
The boiler burns the fossil fuel, usually pulverized
coal, as a heat source. The fossil fuel is combined
with air in the boiler chamber to produce the
maximum temperature. The water, forced into the
chamber from the pump, flows through the boiler to
become superheated, high-speed steam. The hotter
the steam is, the more efficient the process. Now
that energy from heat is in the form of mechanical
energy, it is ready for the turbine.
Figure 4: The boiler burns the
heat source, and boils the water

3. The Turbine
The turbine is a shaft with blades attached, which
acts as a rotary engine to extract work from this
flow. The heat-resistant blades, spinning at over
3000 rotations per minute, are attached to an
electric generator. The high-speed steam, after
giving its heat and mechanical energy to the
turbine, exits the turbine as low-temperature Figure 5: The turbine recaptures the
steam. energy and generates electricity

4. The Condenser
The condenser, the largest part of the cycle, uses
cooling rods to return the low-energy steam to
liquid state. Once a liquid again, the water can be
returned to the pump to begin the cycle once more.
The huge cooling towers are part of the condenser
because they release the waste products of the
rankine cycle: heat, carbon dioxide, and water.

Figure 6: The condenser cools the

steam into water, and releases waste
A power plant uses these four basic components, along with other processes that facilitate
the cycle, in order to produce electricity.

Power Plants
How the Rankine Cycle is applied in the Plant
As a way to see how the Rankine Cycle is applied in power plants, see figure 7, a plant
overview screen that I made at Metso Automation USA, a company that makes
automation software for use in power plants. This process screen is from a three-boiler,
fossil fuel power plant in Roxboro, North Carolina.

In this process display, dark blue lines represent water, light blue lines represent air, and
orange lines represent steam. Here, the feedwater system, a system of pumps, valves,
tanks, and heaters represents the pump part of the cycle. Highlighted in yellow, the
feedwater system (pump), feeds water into each of the three boilers, highlighted in red.

Each boiler receives water (from the pumps) and air (from the fans) in order to produce
steam. The steam then goes into the turbine, highlighted in green, and electricity is
produced (notice gross Megawatts produced and RPM status displays next to the turbine).

Finally, the cooled steam flows into the condenser. The water is then returned to the tank
that supplies the pump, and the process begins anew.




Figure 7: A power plant overview screen made by Metso Automation. The rankine cycle flows clockwise in
this display, moving from pump, to boiler, to turbine, to condenser.
Other Components of the Power Plant

 Fuel Delivery/Transportation: A large plant needs 10,000 tons of coal per day
to stay in operation. In order to keep up, plants have built in conveyers that
transport the coal or other fuel. Some plants are built close to mines; others have
unloading stations for barges, trucks, or trains.

 Fuel Processing: The plant also must oversee preparing coal for the boiler.
Pulverizers crush the coal to the proper size and heaters manage the coal’s
moisture content. This process takes place upon conveyers, which feed into the

 Generator: The Generator takes the Kinetic Energy from the turbine and
produces useful AC current. Because the amount of electricity is huge, plants
also have switchyard, to manage all of the outgoing current.


Ultimately, the process of converting heat energy to electrical energy takes place in just a
few simple steps. First, the boiler heats the super-heated steam. Then, the turbine
generator recaptures the kinetic energy. Finally, the condenser and pump recycle the
water so it can be used again. The rankine cycle can use other sources of fuel, such as
nuclear energy, biomass energy, geothermal energy, or solar energy, making this cycle
relevant to almost all forms of energy production.

With high population countries, such as China,

requiring more and more energy, our world is not
too far away from an energy crisis. According to
most recent projections by the International Energy
Agency, the world will need nearly twice as much
energy production by 2030.

With this trend in mind, the production of cheap

electricity will become much more important in the
future. The rankine cycle is the key to
understanding nearly all forms of energy production
that will be important in solving this crisis. Figure 8: The current and projected
Energy Demand in China. International
Energy Association.
Works Cited
[Cover Page] Madrigal, Alexis. Oct 12, 2010. <>

[Figure 3] Gonyeau, Joseph. Oct 12, 2010. The Virtual Nuclear Tourist.

[Figure 4] Strerling Strips Limited. Oct 12, 2010 <>

[Figure 5] Mechblog. Oct 12, 2010. <>

[Figure 6] Trends Updates. Oct 12, 2010. <>