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Saving Energy: Harnessing Steam
Saving Energy: Harnessing Steam

Article originally appeared in FoodBev Magazine

For many food and drink companies, the key to improving water and energy efficiency lies in how effectively they harness by-products like steam.

Wet steam – the type of vapor that emanates from a boiled kettle – is produced in vast quantities by a range of industries including the food and drink sector. But traditionally, it couldn’t be utilised because wet steam damages conventional steam turbines.

So one company – Heliex Power – devised a unique technology that would allow the by-product to be converted into electricity, based on research by scientists at City University, London.

According to Heliex Chief Executive Chris Armitage, the technology is particularly important because of the vast amount of wet steam that is lost.

“In the case of wet steam, the amount unused is absolutely vast: analyses suggest that more than 40,000-gigawatt hours of energy is lost globally every year through waste steam. It's also estimated that up to 50% of industrial energy usage is eventually released as waste heat – enough to power 28 billion homes. 

"That's something that could, and should be tackled through the application of the right technologies. If we can be more efficient with what we're already producing, rather than generating new energy, that will make a significant difference."

There are now more than 50 of Heliex’s GenSet in the field, including in poultry farms, in nurseries and in bottle manufacturing plants – clocking up more than 140,000 operating hours between them.

Heliex launched three new products last year based on the original technology, including its steam compressor, the Heliex SteamComp, which allows food and drink companies to re-energise their steam in a cost-effective way

“It’s a patented technology,” explained Chris, “but the way it works 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 on each end.

“We expand them through that expander and, in doing so, the rotors turn, and we have output at one end. We connect that to a generator to produce electricity. It’s easy to install and delivers an attractive return on investment – often in less than three years.

“Food and beverage manufacturing is energy intensive and operates within tight margins – we have a number of customers in the industry, but more could benefit from the technology.

“The Heliex systems allow them to cut operating costs, using the energy found within their process steam. Some of our customers in the industry are also looking at the installation of local biomass combined heat and power (CHP) plants as an alternative to gas boilers in order to generate steam.

"In one instance a major UK poultry farm is using a Heliex GenSet and litter burning biomass boiler to heat the chicken coops on its site and generate electricity for general use. In another, Essex based Villa Nursery is using a combined biomass boiler and Heliex system to heat its greenhouses and cut electricity costs – sometimes they even use it to generate extra revenues by selling the electricity back to the grid. These sites are also eligible for financial incentives through the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme for biomass CHP installations in the UK. “

As well as ensuring that usable products like steam are not lost, it’s also important to use clean steam, as Francisco Pedrosa from steam systems provider Spirax Sarco explained.

Spirax Sarco has published a white paper that details the risks of failing to use clean steam and claims that clean steam is the industry's greatest oversight. 

It's used by manufacturers for a wide range of applications from cooking sauces, soups and ready meals to sterilisation and pulling a vacuum in bottles – yet companies are failing to treat steam as an ingredient, according to Francisco.

He explained: “By understanding the pitfalls of not having a clean steam process in place, what a clean steam process should look like, and the advantages it can deliver, food and beverage companies should soon be making sure clean steam sites at the very top of any list of ingredients.”

FoodBev Magazine

18 October