|For Immediate Release ||National Engineers Week |
Getting Up In The Morning: An Electrifying Experience
The alarm clock sounds at 6 a.m., and people everywhere enter the common ritual. They turn off the rude alarm clock, flick on the light, and brew the coffee. Such is the morning routine, and Americans know it so well that the sequence is carried out so, well, routinely.
However, the simple action of, say, flicking on that light is an end result of a rather complicated technical process which is the everyday focus of professional groups ranging from engineers and research scientists to geologists and environmentalists.
The process of electricity traces back thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years ago to the formation of minerals and petrified substances from what was at one time living matter. Located deep in the Earths underground are the essential elements of electric power: fuel, in the form of coal and natural gas. Extraction of the coal and natural gas is accomplished with the aid of computers, powerful machinery, and ultra-durable drill bits capable of boring through rock.
Natural gas is the preferred fuel in the United States due to its abundant availability and low environmental risk. When gas is burned in the controlled combustion environment of the utility plant, it produces power that turns the precision-engineered blades of a large gas turbine. The turbines are connected to electric generators that make the electricity by placing rotating conductors in a magnetic field.
Coal and gas are not the only sources of energy for power generation. Hydroelectric plants utilize the enormous thrust and power of water to move turbines. Utilities in California have been successful with solar farms, where mirrored panels concentrate sunshine onto a synthetic fluid that heats to around 700 degrees F and is used to generate steam, which drives the turbomachinery. Elsewhere, household garbage is burned for steam generation. Whether its burning gas or harnessing the energy of the sun, the fundamental need for generating electricity is to create mechanical power for driving turbines and generators.
After the electricity is generated, it enters the transmission and distribution system. Electricity leaves the plant at high voltages, typically in the 230kV to 500 kV range, then flows into transformers located on the utility poles in residential neighborhoods. The job of the transformer is to decrease the voltage to 110 or 220 volts. Electricity flowing to a power companys commercial customers -- factories and railroads, for example also passes into transformers which decrease the voltage, though not to the extent of that in the home.
The customer site is referred to as the load, and it is here where the voltage is present in wires as potential electricity. When a customer flicks on the switch, he or she completes an electrical circuit allowing electrons to flow through the wires, converting the potential electricity into actual electricity to operate lights and household appliances.
All along the pathway of energy exploration and electric power generation, transmission and distribution, engineers are working toward improvement. They are designing efficient gas turbines, maintaining the power plants, reducing pollutants, and repairing the various components of the electric power system.
The many achievements of engineers will be highlighted during National Engineers Week.