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Application and Investigation of the Effect on Emission and Performance Associated with Passive Pre-Chamber Spark Plugs and

Integrated Controls on Low Btu-Fueled Natural Gas Engines D. Lepley Altronic, LLC L. Tozzi, E. Sotiropoulou Prometheus Applied Technologies, LLC R. Joseph Colorado State University

Abstract
Operators of lean-burn natural gas engines, using low quality fuels, face the dual challenges of maintaining engine stability while compelled to meet reduced operating emission levels. Additionally, machines driven by such fuels routinely face substantial daily variances in methane content. The result: poor ignitability and/or misfire. Frequently, these engines must be operated at sub-optimal, rich conditions to assure reasonable combustion stability. The consequence: excess NOx production, reduced spark plug life, and premature power cylinder failures. This paper outlines the exploration and field testing of a system solution designed around an engine-specific, pre-chamber spark plug and an optimized retrofit control solution. The design and test goals: meeting and maintaining the desired combustion stability and the required emission levels. Reported and reviewed field test results from CAT3516A/B engines indicate a significant improvement in combustion stability at lean conditions, resulting in a reduction of both NOx production and fuel consumption. This paper will outline the test methodology and a review of observed results, as well as an overview of the range of enabling technologies central to the solution.

Background
While the primary focus of this work is to outline the functional and operational issues associated with landfill gas (LFG) fueled engines, the concepts described herein are equally applicable to engines operating on fuels characterized by low energy content such as digester gas and/or large variability in Methane content such as wellhead gas. One can readily draw parallels between the issues faced in the described LFG-fueled engine operation and engines of similar BMEP and BTE. The continued drive for ever-lower NOx emissions and ever-higher BTE has resulted in a class of engines that struggle to reliably and cost-effectively operate on the available fuels. Landfill gas-to-energy operations in the US A popular option for generating electricity from municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills is referred to as landll-gas-to-energy (LFGTE). It involves the collection and combustion of LFG, generated through the anaerobic decomposition of landfill MSW, in a reciprocating engine or a turbine. As MSW decomposes anaerobically, it produces a blend of several gases, including methane. Modern landfills are engineered sites, designed to efficiently contain MSW while collecting the produced LFG. Gas collection systems operate continuously, usually consisting of vertical wells
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and sometimes horizontal trenches or other zones filled with permeable material within the waste, from which LFG is extracted by application of a vacuum. Once the gas is withdrawn, it can be flared, processed into pipeline quality gas or transformed into electricity by combusting in a gas engine/turbine coupled to an electric generator [1].

Figure 1: Schematic (section) of a typical landfill gas collection system [2] If methane (CH4), which is a greenhouse gas, is allowed to escape to the atmosphere, it has a global warming potential that the IPPC estimates to be 23 times greater than that of the same volume of carbon dioxide [3]. It also poses explosion hazards, if uncontrolled. On the other hand, it is the main component of natural gas and can be a valuable source of energy. Other LFG constituents, such as non-methane organic compounds (NMOCs), can contribute to smog formation while others such as hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and halides pose health hazards due to their toxicity [1]. The main constituents of LFG and their proportions are captured in Table 1. Concentration (by volume) Range Average Methane (CH4) 35 60% 50% Carbon Dioxide (CO2) 35 55% 45% Nitrogen (N2) 0 20% 5% Oxygen (O2) 0 2.5% <1% Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) 1 1700 ppm 21 ppm Halides NA 132 ppm Water Vapor (H2O) 1 10% NA Non Methane Organic Compounds (NMOCs) 237 14,294 ppm 2700 ppm Table 1: Variations in LFG composition across the US [1] Constituent Gas

From Table 2, it can be seen that the lower heating value (LHV) of LFG is approximately 50% that of pipeline-quality gas, which categorizes it as a low-Btu fuel. It can also be seen that the biogases (landfill and digester gas) have the lowest energy content. Additionally, the high concentration of CO2 in LFG results in very poor combustion characteristics because it tends to behave as an inert gas, reducing the laminar flame speed and effectively quenching the combustion process [4]. LHV Pipeline-quality Gas Landfill Gas Digester Gas Wellhead Gas 3 MJ/m 31 40 13 20 11 22 26 - 60 Btu/SCF 832 1075 363 545 320 591 700 - 1600 Table 2: Comparison of energy content (LHV) of pipeline gas with biogas (landfill/digester) and wellhead gas [5,6] As of April 2011, the US EPAs Landfill Methane Outreach Program lists 551 operational LFGTE projects in the country, with another 510 locations identified as candidate sites. The operational LFGTE sites produce approximately 1.5 GW of electric power, of which over 1.1 GW is generated by reciprocating engines, 366 MW by gas/steam turbines and the remainder from micro-turbines, Stirling cycle and combined cycle plants [7]. In landfill applications, gas engines are the power plant of choice (over gas turbines) owing to their lower equipment and operational costs, higher thermal efficiencies, and the flexibility afforded to landfill developers in building fine resolution LFGTE site topologies (modular increments of approximately 1 MW per engine power plant compared to 3-5 MW per turbine power plant) [8]. Another reason that engines are preferred in LFGTE applications is because currently available lean-burn technology allows for engine operation at high power densities (Brake Mean Effective Pressure BMEP) and efficiencies (Brake Thermal Efficiency BTE), while maintaining low emissions. Therefore, this research paper details operational improvements for landfill gas engines, focusing on high performance ignition systems and associated control architectures that support lean-burn operation. Landfill engine operations: challenges and solutions Using landfill gas in the production of energy includes special operational challenges [9]. The presence of particulates, water vapor, hydrogen sulfide, and chlorinated hydrocarbons in the LFG stream have exhibited detrimental effects on engine life, by way of increased wear on engine components and formation of corrosive acids during the combustion process [10]. Siloxanes in the gas stream convert to silicon oxide during the combustion process, forming hard deposits of amorphous silica ash on cylinder heads, valves and pistons [11, 12], leading to accelerated wear (abrasive nature of silica), higher thermal loading on engine components (silica behaves as a thermal insulator) and spark plug fouling [13], which is the leading cause of engine downtime at LFGTE sites [8]. In conventional spark plugs, it is surmised that silica deposits on electrode surfaces cause flame quenching and by extension, improper ignition kernel development. In the case of prechamber spark plugs, silica buildup in the chamber orifices is the primary contributing factor toward engine performance degradation [8], per the presumed mechanism depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Mechanism responsible for engine performance degradation in prechamber spark plugs due to silica build up in chamber orifices Another issue faced by LFGTE operators, given the low energy content and daily variations in LFG composition, is to balance high efficiency, low emission engine operation with acceptable spark plug life. The challenge of achieving this balance with lean-burn engines stems from a number of factors. To begin with, it has been shown that fast and consistent combustion heat release is imperative to achieving high thermal efficiencies in reciprocating engines [14]. However, low NOx emissions from these engines require very lean fuel/air ratios which, in the case of methane-air mixtures, are characterized by slow combustion heat release, leading to a loss of engine thermal efficiency [15]. Also, spark plug erosion rates have been shown to be directly proportional to increasing BMEP, which in turn, is directly proportional to higher BTE [16]. Regardless of the type of spark plug used, current plug life is typically 500 hours, imposing frequent, costly engine downtime for plug maintenance or replacement [8]. In summary, the variety of operational challenges faced by LFGTE operators necessitates development of an innovative engineered solution that facilitates stable, continuous, lowemission engine operation at these sites. In particular, advancements in ignition and fuel control systems will play a pivotal role in LFGTE engine applications, as a means to overcome the operational hurdles described earlier.

Proposed system solution


Based on prior work [17,18,19], an effective system solution has been proposed to overcome several of the aforementioned impediments experienced by LFGTE engines, comprising: (i) an air-fuel ratio (AFR) controller, (ii) a high energy ignition system with tunable spark energy waveforms, and (iii) optimized prechamber spark plugs. This paper is a report on the performance of these optimized prechamber plugs, deployed in an LFGTE application. However, a brief overview of the other two system components (comprising the overall system solution) will also be provided prior to discussing the field test results of the prechamber plug. Emissions from lean burn engines are intimately tied to the engine AFR adjustment which also impacts stable engine operation at the specified load. In order to meet the emissions level requirements, lean-burn, carbureted gas engines are typically operated at AFRs of phi () 0.83 to 0.55. An AFR controller should be deployed in order to accurately control the AFR of these
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engines in a closed loop control strategy, maintainable through variations in load and fuel BTU. While there are multiple AFR controllers available in the market, a reference design selected for the proposed system solution is the Altronic EPC150 [20]. This model was chosen for its adaptability to in-line or V-type engines, its versatility in servicing various OEM engine models, as well as the authors familiarity with its reliability, precision, and other performance characteristics. The flame initiation in lean burn engines is a key process requiring high energy sparks to achieve fast and consistent combustion. The Altronic Direct Energy Ignition Technology [17] represents an evolution of high energy ignition systems with its feature of providing tunable spark energy delivery to the flow field conditions present in and around the electrodes of a spark plug. This capability is required for maximizing combustion performance and spark plug life. Compared to conventional spark ignition, flame jet ignition, obtained with prechamber spark plugs, initiates the combustion process using highly turbulent flame jets, offering fast and consistent flame propagation, especially in lean or highly dilute fuel mixtures. A CFD simulation of the flame propagation mechanism is shown in Figure 3. Also, Figure 4 provides a CFD comparison of the flow fields around the electrodes in open chamber and prechamber configurations. It can be seen that gas flow patterns around the electrode gap are more uniform in the case of prechamber plugs, resulting in a faster and more consistent flame development.

Figure 3: CFD combustion simulation comparison of flame development between a conventional open spark plug and a prechamber spark plug (time is referenced in crank angle degrees (CAD) before top dead center (TDC))

Figure 4: CFD simulation comparison of flow fields in the electrode gap of a conventional open spark plug and a prechamber spark plug (time is CAD before TDC) With prechamber spark plugs, the residual gases from the previous combustion cycle further dilute the fuel-air mixture trapped in the prechamber. Moreover, long plug life targets require the sparking electrodes to have large surfaces with a small gap. Under these conditions, the quenching effects can be significant and must be compensated by the electrical energy supplied by the spark. Hence, ignition systems with tunable spark energy delivery [17] that can be coupled to the flow fields at the electrodes become an enabling technology for lean burn operation with long plug life. Shown in Figure 5, is a CFD simulation comparing the flame kernel development initiated in one case by a commercially available high energy ignition system and in another case by a tunable spark discharge waveform. With the standard high energy spark, the flame kernel develops very slowly and eventually quenches. On the other hand, the tunable spark promotes flame kernel growth and compensates for quenching effects.

Figure 5: Comparison of ignition kernel development between (a) a conventional high energy spark and (b) a tunable high energy spark (time is CAD before TDC)
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Prechamber Spark Plug for landfill Applications


A prechamber plug design was developed and tested for the Altronic L1863DP open spark plug for use on CAT3500A/B engines fueled with LFG. This plug is pictured in Figure 6. Through laboratory and field tests, the performance improvements of this prechamber spark plug design were demonstrated in terms of fuel consumption, emissions, life, and safe engine operation.

Figure 6: A prechamber spark plug developed jointly by Altronic and Prometheus for LFG engine applications Laboratory Test A comprehensive engine performance test was conducted on a fully instrumented CAT3516C at Colorado State Universitys Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory (EECL). The objective was to showcase performance improvements of the prechamber plug design over the conventional open spark plug (L1863DP). Shown in Figure 7, is a picture of the engine at the EECL.

Figure 7: CAT3516C at Colorado State Universitys EECL One of the design goals for the prechamber plug was to achieve less than 2% Coefficient of Variation (COV) of Indicated Mean Effective Pressure (IMEP). This improvement in engine stability was easily attained, with the prechamber plug exhibiting 1.8% COV of IMEP compared to 6.4% by the open plug. Figure 8 shows the higher peak combustion pressure attained by the prechamber plug over the open plug.

Figure 8: Combustion pressure comparison of the L1863DP open plug vs. the Altronic prechamber plug in the CAT G3516-C at the EECL Comparing the combustion heat release duration for the two configurations (see Figure 9) provides more clarity on the benefits of the prechamber plug. The combustion heat release
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duration, defined as the crank angle degree (CAD) window within which 10% to 90% of mass fraction burn (MFB) is obtained, is 11 CAD shorter for the prechamber plug, yielding exhaust port temperatures that are 41C lower than the open plug and resulting in an estimated 3% point increase in fuel efficiency for the prechamber plug.

Figure 9: Combustion heat release comparison of the L1863DP open plug vs. the Altronic prechamber plug in the CAT G3516-C at the EECL The second objective of the test was to determine the misfire limit of the prechamber plug, the results of which are summarized in Table 3. The engine was operated with leaner air-fuel mixtures. Under similar operating conditions of phi and targeting the same location of centroid of heat release (i.e., 50% MFB), the prechamber plug exhibited no misfires and still maintained a less than 2% COV of IMEP while the open plug misfire rate was in excess of 30% (per 1000 cycles).

Location of 50% MFB (crank angle) % Misfires per 1000 Cycles 21 0% with < 2% COV of IMEP Prechamber plug 21 > 30% Open Plug Table 3: Misfire limit comparison of the L1863DP open plug vs. the Altronic prechamber plug in the CAT G3516-C at the EECL It is important to note that the combustion performance observed with the L1863DP plug is typical of any open plug (j-gap type or otherwise). These laboratory test results exceeded expectations so it was decided to proceed with a field test at an operational LFGTE site.

Performance Field Test Engine performance tests were conducted at a landfill site on a CAT3516A and a CAT3516B, shown in Figure 10. The objective was to determine the proper spark timing and air-fuel ratio for reliable starting and stable operation at full load (820kW nominal rating) with improved fuel consumption and NOx emissions.

Figure 10: Field test engines, CAT3516A/B Shown in Table 4 is the optimum spark timing vs. speed and load for reliable staring with the prechamber plug. It was found that retarded spark timings at low speed and load were required to improve the scavenging of the prechamber from residual gases.

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Table 4. Spark timing schedule vs. engine speed and load, required for reliable starting An emissions baseline was established for both engines using an L1863DP open spark plug. Shown in Table 5, is the comparison between the NOx levels obtained with the prechamber plug and the open plug for each engine. The much higher levels of NOx were required to maintain stable combustion with the conventional open plug while the prechamber plug demonstrated stable engine operation at much lower NOx levels (less than 200ppm raw NOx).

Prechamber (raw NOx ppm) Open Plug (raw NOx ppm) 177 >500 CAT3516A 176 >500 CAT3516B Table 5: NOx levels obtained for each engine with the prechamber plug compared to those obtained with the open plug The average fuel flow reading for the engines using open spark plugs was 275cfm at NOx greater than 500ppm raw, while with the prechamber, it was reduced to 265cfm at 300ppm raw NOx, which translates to a 3.6% reduction in fuel consumption accompanied by a reduction in NOx emissions. This measurement was taken at 300ppm raw NOx because that operating condition was selected for the durability test. Durability Field Test For the plug durability test the engines were set at approximately 820kW output and less than 300ppm of NOx. A spark timing sweep vs. NOx and cylinder pressure at the time of spark is shown in Figures 11 and 12 for both engines. It can be seen that with more retarded timing, lower NOx but higher cylinder pressure at the time of spark were obtained. The engine controlling parameters monitored throughout the test were the spark timing (ST), the boost pressure, the after-cooler outlet charge (A/C Out) temperature, engine power output and prechamber plug seat gasket temperature (see Figure 13). Furthermore, a gas analyzer was used to monitor the fuel quality.

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Figure 11: Cylinder pressure and NOx emissions at the time of spark and vs. crank angle with 3516A

Figure 12: Cylinder pressure and NOx emissions at the time of spark and vs. crank angle with 3516B
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Figure 13: Thermocouple used for plug seat gasket temperature measurement. Based on the engine in-cylinder conditions of pressure and temperatures, a plug life of approximately 1000hrs was calculated for a NOx emission level below 300ppm raw [21]. This projection was twice as long as the actual plug life obtained with the open L1863DP plug of approximately 450hrs, at this site, at NOx levels higher than 500ppm NOx. The average measured plug sit gasket temperature was 2200C. The initial spark voltage measured at these conditions was 9-13kV. This voltage increased to 28-30kV at an average of 900hrs between the two engines. Therefore, the prechamber plug increased the plug life by a factor of 2 while operating at lower emission levels and lower fuel consumption than its open plug counterpart. Naturally, plug life largely depends upon operating in-cylinder conditions and vary for each application. Lastly, a close inspection of all the plugs from both engines, after the 900hrs durability test, confirmed that no significant silica buildup occurred in the orifices. Figure 14, shows a picture of the prechamber orifices in various samples of plugs from both engines.

Figure 14: Prechamber plugs after the durability test.

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Conclusions and Recommendations


This paper outlined the exploration and field testing of a system solution designed around an engine-specific, prechamber spark plug and an optimized retrofit control solution. The design and test goals of meeting and maintaining the desired combustion stability, at the required emission levels, while significantly improving plug life were achieved. The field test results from the CAT3516A and B engines, equipped with the prechamber spark plug, indicated a 72% improvement in combustion stability at lean condition, resulting in a significant reduction of NOx emissions with 3.6% reduction in fuel consumption, while doubling the spark plug life. It is expected that equal or better gains in spark plug life would be achieved in gas compression applications where the engine load is typically lower than that of power generation applications. Furthermore, an overview of the range of enabling technologies central to the solution was provided. It is believed that adaptable air-fuel ratio controllers and tunable high energy ignition systems, together with engine-specific prechamber spark plugs can provide a robust and cost effective retrofit solution to operators of lean-burn natural gas engines, using low quality fuels. It is recommended to conduct additional field tests with adaptable air-fuel ratio control and high energy ignition, combined to prechamber spark plugs and extended to gas engine models other than CAT3516A/B. This will confirm the performance and reliability of the proposed system solution.

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NOx emissions. ASME/IEEE Joint Rail Conference & Internal Combustion Engine Spring Technical Conference, pp. 391 397. JRC/ICE2007-40026. 20. Altronic O&M Manual for EPC150 (AFR Controller). http://www.altronicllc.com/pdf/engine%20controls/EPC-150-OM%2012-04.pdf 21. McCoole (a.k.a. Sotiropoulou), M.-E., Predicting Spark Plug Life in Natural Gas Engines, M. Sc. Thesis, Colorado State University, 2005

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