Energy Endeavors Part II: Climbing around coal-fired plants and a day in the life of a drill bit

For Energy Endeavors Part I, click here.

On Thursday, the rains came down and the floods came up. There were some flooded roads between me and the Museum, but I was able to go around or just barrel on through. Understandably, not all the teachers were able to make it; some were trapped by flood waters while others had the added bonus of having no electricity.

We did eventually get on the road and on the way to the Coleto Creek Power Station, a coal-fired power plant outside of Victoria, Texas. It was pouring, but after a couple of hours we made it out into sunshine.

Energy Endeavor Part IIWe got to the plant right around lunch and as we ate, we listened to a presentation by Robert Stevens about the basics of coal-fired electricity.

A coal-fired plant works by burning coal to create steam, which is then used to turn a turbine. Coal-fired plants generate about 42 percent of all the electricity in the United States.  In Texas, coal makes up about 39 percent of our electricity. Unlike other states, the Texas electrical grid is its own. While we do have a few outside lines to other states, Texas could cut itself off from the rest of the country and still be electrically independent.

As you can probably imagine, a plant built to produce 600 megawatts is a huge undertaking. In front of the plant are train tracks that cart coal from Wyoming to be burned. The cars are made so that one of the ends can twist and the other is ridged. This is because they go into a building where the cars are locked in place and then turned upside down. The coal is taken by belt and piled into a coal field that sits atop a feeder. The feeder takes the coal in, crushes it, and sends it into the furnace. It all has to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, because we need the electricity it produces.

The teachers loved this place. We were able to climb all over it. We saw where the train cars were turned over, we saw the turbines, and we saw where the coal was injected into the furnace. The teachers were especially delighted to get bits of coal and ash to take back to their classrooms.

Friday there was thankfully no rain, and we went to see drill bits being made at Varel International. They make drill bits not only for the oil and gas industry, but for the mining industry as well. At their site in Houston, they take each drill bit from the design stage to completion.

When the company gets a custom order (and seismic data), they start by designing the drill bit on a computer.  They have to make it strong enough to go through the rock that’s expected to be there and have enough flow from the mud to make sure nothing breaks down.  After that, they run a simulation mold of the bit being carved out — this way they can check to see if there will be any problems before they start production.

Energy Endeavor Part IIDuring the production phase, they hollow out a graphite block, and put place holders in to create holes for the bits and tubes to make sure the mud will have a path to flow through. Then, the mold is filled with metal and put into a furnace.

After awhile — as much as two days in some cases — the drill bit is taken out of the furnace and is broken free from its graphite mold. The bits are welded into place and the bit goes through a number of cleaning processes, making sure the clumps of excess metal are removed. A bit is then added to the collar (the part that attaches to the pipe). The bit is taken away, painted the company colors of green and silver, put in its container and shipped out into the world.

Our final destination was the Chemistry Department at the University of St. Thomas. We got to see some of the students’ projects, such as one student’s small reactor, and hear about the programming at UST.

As you can see, it was a very fruitful week. We had some adventures (some unintended), saw some wonderful sites and met a lot of people who not only loved their jobs, but were eager to share that enthusiasm with a bunch of teachers. It’s a wide world of energy out there and, at least in Houston, you don’t have to go very far to experience it.

Energy Endeavors Part I: Teachers trek Texas in a week-long energy quest

I’ve always enjoyed traveling. It’s not something I’ve gotten to do as much as I’d like, but I’m working on it. I have fond memories of traveling with my family to places like Washington DC and Williamsburg, with my high school to Spain and Boston, and in college to Florida, Colorado, and England. I enjoy wandering along the back pathways, eating local food and seeing the sights.

Like most people, when I travel I tend to venture far from where I live at the expense of a lot of local destinations. Texas is rich in destinations that deal with energy: The Bureau of Economic Geology in Houston stores core samples from wells around the world.  Schlumberger runs a test rig down in Sugar Land to train their engineers. And there are many, many more.

What better way to go see some of these sights than with a group of interested (and interesting) people? So we created a week-long teacher workshop to visit different energy destinations throughout Texas.

The first day, things got going a little slowly. We waited for everyone to arrive, filled out paper work, and reviewed the week’s objectives. Once that was out of the way, we loaded up in the vans and headed to our first destination – the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) in Austin.

Energy Road TripThe BEG is a great place, and it’s part of the University of Texas system. It’s a large warehouse where they store drilling cores, and scientists and engineers can come and study them. They can pull out cores from different areas from around the world and see what the subsurface geology looks like. This is a must for people looking for crude oil, people looking at how coasts form, and people looking at what type of rocks and at what layers can hold carbon dioxide. The inside of the warehouse looks a bit like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

On day two, we went to two different locations. The first was the test well at Schlumberger. It’s a fully working rig that drills through cement without hope of striking oil, and its purpose is to train field engineers. Schlumberger makes its money not by drilling for oil, but by providing services for the oil industry. Specifically, they’re known for well logging — when you scan the inside of a well for specific attributes, like conductivity and resistivity.

Energy Road Trip

It’s always fun to stand on a rig and talk with the people who run it. One of the major differences between a rig drilling for oil and the test rig is that the people on the test rig often get to go home at the end of the day.

Our second stop of the day was Marathon Oil’s Visionarium. It’s like the Giant Screen Theatre, a conference room, and a digital laboratory all rolled into one. On a 27-foot by 8-foot curved screen, the engineers are able to display data (seismic, pipeline, etc.) and model a geological formation in 2D and 3D (and probably 4D as well).

After that, the people at Marathon did something great — something I’d never seen done.  They asked the teachers their opinions on all the different ways to get kids into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The teachers all answered similarly — the time that makes or breaks science for a kid is in 6th and 7th grade. Kids need to see what options there are for jobs and they need mentoring.

On Wednesday (the third day), we went down to the South Texas Nuclear Project (STP) and took a tour of the facilities. The cooling reservoirs cover a massive 7,000 acres, or 10.9 square miles. The training control room has an exact mockup of STP’s reactor control rooms. Because of the way that licenses are given to nuclear plants, the control rooms haven’t changed much.

In the training control room, unlike the real one, we were able to turn knobs and press buttons. In fact, we were even able to make several of the alarms go off — fun in a training room, but disastrous in a real one.

Energy Road TripAfter that, we took off to Brazosport College. Why Brazosport College, you ask? Because of its Process Operations Management degree and its on-site working chemical plant.  Process operators are the people who run plants — not plants like the ones you find in a greenhouse, but chemical and energy-producing plants. Brazosport offers a two-year program and is able to offer some incredible hands-on experience because it has a small chemical plant onsite, where students experience what happens when they have a blocked pipe or things are flowing incorrectly.

Join me next time here on the blog where we’ll see a coal-fired plant and a drill bit factory.